Down with the Three-Inning Save

Wes Littleton got a three-inning save in a game his team won 30-3. (via U.S. Air Force Jacob Corbin)

Defining a save has never been an easy task.

Sportswriter Jerome Holtzman popularized the stat when he defined and began using it in 1959, according to Major League Baseball’s official website. He did so because he felt as though there was not a stat that properly measured relief pitchers’ effectiveness and their ability to not allow inherited runners to score. 

As MLB.com points out, “a save is awarded to the relief pitcher who finishes a game for the winning team, under certain circumstances. A pitcher cannot receive a save and a win in the same game.”

So, to earn the save, a relief pitcher must preserve his team’s lead while doing one of the following: “Enter the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitch at least one inning,” “enter the game with the tying run in the on-deck circle, at the plate or on the bases,” or “pitch at least three innings.”

That is the issue with the stat. It takes three unlike events and rolls them into one stat and as MLB.com notes, one common criticism of them is that they are a “product of opportunity.”

However, the biggest issue with saves is the least common type: the three-inning save.

The Long Save

There was never a time where the three-inning save was a common occurrence, but it happened far more frequently in the 1970s and 1980s than it does today. Notably, Rollie Fingers, who saved 341 games in his major league career, pitched three or more innings in 36 of those saves; 18 of those 36 were saves solely based on the innings rule — not because he protected a tight lead. Meanwhile, Goose Gossage went three-plus innings in 23 of his 310 career saves, and he earned 11 of those saves because of innings pitched (which would put him at 299 if the rule were ever amended). 

However, in recent times, they have become ultra-rare. In 1977, there were 180 of them in the 26 team league, according to SB Nation. By 2010, there were only four in the entire season.

One reason for this decline is because of Tony La Russa’s use of Hall of Fame closer Dennis Eckersley with the Oakland Athletics in 1988, according to the Washington Post. Of the 60 times Eckersley pitched that season, he entered only one game in which his team trailed. Only 11 of his 60 appearances were 2.0 innings or more, although none lasted three innings or more.

The strategy worked out well for the Athletics, who would make it to the World Series that season. Although the A’s fell to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the fall classic, Eckersley was the runner up for the American League Cy Young Award and finished fifth in the MVP voting — something which did not go unnoticed by other teams across the majors.

From 1988 to 1990, the number of three-inning saves went from 110 to 50, as SB Nation points out.

Even so, the save criteria has not been updated to reflect modern pitching. It’s just as flawed as it has been since MLB started using the stat officially in 1969 and slightly modified it in 1974.

To illustrate it, I looked at some of the wackiest instances of pitchers throwing at least three innings and earning a save (mostly bad, but one really great one).

Broken Mops

Like pitching wins and losses, long relief outings that result in saves are largely based on run support. If the game is a high-scoring affair, it is possible for a pitcher to have an exceptionally poor outing and still have an “SV” next to his name in the newspaper box score. 

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On May 29, 2019, that was the case for Washington Nationals reliever Kyle McGowin. Pitching the final three innings of a 14-4 win over the Atlanta Braves, McGowin loaded the bases with no outs in the seventh inning and served up a grand slam. Had he done this in a one-inning save opportunity on the road, his team would have lost the game right then and there. Instead, he recorded nine outs without giving up another run, protecting a 10-run lead to earn the first save of his career. It put him one save closer to Mariano Rivera on the all-time list (652).

Back in 2012, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim reliever Jerome Williams earned his first save of the season in what was essentially a piggyback start with Ervin Santana on July 30.

The team won the game 15-8 with Santana pitching the first five innings of the game and Williams went the last four. It was not a sound outing for Williams though; he allowed five runs on eight hits and a pair of home runs as he earned his first career save.

Those are not even the worst performances that have earned a save in the big leagues. Minnesota Twins pitcher Dave Goltz took that title in 1973 in a 13-9 win over the Cleveland Indians.

The caveat to Goltz’ save is the tying run was on deck with the Indians down to their last out. It was his own doing, though. When he entered the game, the Twins were up 13-1. He brought the Indians back into the game by surrendering eight runs on 13 hits–including four home runs. How one can pitch that poorly and pick up a save is an issue that cannot be understated.

Other notably tumultuous saves came from Phil Hennigan of the Cleveland Indians in 1971 (3.2 innings, six earned runs), Jim Slaton of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1983 (3.2 innings, five earned runs), Mark Huismann of the Seattle Mariners in 1986 (4.0 innings, five earned runs), Ron Davis of the New York Yankees in 1980 (3.1 innings, four earned runs) and Rawly Eastwick of the 1979 Philadelphia Phillies (3.0 innings, four earned runs).

Even though these were exceptionally poor outings, in the stat book, they show up with a save just as it would if someone came into a one-run game with the bases loaded and no outs and struck out the side. 

Ultra-Low Leverage

Some of the lopsided games in major league history have featured saves, although it is hard to say what exactly they are saving.

In 2007, the Texas Rangers walloped the Baltimore Orioles, 30-3, in what is the highest run total one team has amassed in a big-league game this century. Rangers starting pitcher Kason Gabbard threw six innings and picked up the win. Wes Littleton pitched the final three innings of the ballgame to record the save.

When Littleton came into the game in the bottom of the seventh inning, the Rangers already had a 14-3 lead. From there, the team scored 10 more runs in the top of the eighth and six more in the ninth. This meant all Littleton had to do in the ninth inning to earn this save was protect a 27-run lead because he already had thrown two scoreless innings.

Although it would be difficult to top protecting a 27-run lead to earn a save, then Chicago Cubs pitcher Ramon Hernandez once entered a game with the task of protecting a 20-run lead in what was a save situation in a 1977 game against the San Diego Padres. Bill Bonham, the winning pitcher in the game, pitched six innings and gave up just two runs. Meanwhile, the Cubs’ offense blasted six home runs in the game and gave them a 22-2 lead headed into the bottom of the seventh inning.

Hernandez struggled, allowing four runs in his first inning of work, but it did not matter. His final two innings pitched were scoreless, the Cubs tacked on another run, and they won the game 23-6. Hernandez did not surrender a grand slam like McGowin did, but Bobby Valentine smashed a two-run homer off of him. 

All-Time Great?

While one could argue some of the worst saves in history came in outings lasting three or more innings, one of the best ones did as well.

Montreal Expos pitcher Woodie Fryman helped his team to a 1-0 victory over the Houston Astros on May 14, 1980, taking over for winning pitcher Scott Sanderson, who had pitched five scoreless innings. 

Fryman came in with the tying run on second base and no outs in the bottom of the sixth inning. He handled the rest of the game with ease. He threw four perfect innings, not allowing a single hitter to reach base as he struck out five batters and protected a one-run lead. A starter for most of his 18 years in the big leagues, Fryman recorded a career-high 17 saves in 1980. However, this was the only one of the bunch where he pitched at least three innings.

By definition, this save would’ve qualified as one the same way a one-inning outing would because it was a one-run game. It also would’ve qualified as a save in that he came into the game with the tying run on base so either way, it was a legitimate save.

Conclusion

The save rule, as it currently stands, is imperfect and could use modification so that it could be useful and relevant. The three-inning saves in lopsided contests are rare, sure, but there is no reason they should be counted the same as the type of ninth-inning situation where the San Diego Padres would call upon Kirby Yates or the San Francisco Giants summon Will Smith

Although there are some elite relievers, like Josh Hader of the Milwaukee Brewers or Andrew Miller during the 2016 postseason with the Cleveland Indians, who will throw multi-inning outings on a regular basis (23 of Hader’s 61 outings exceeded an inning in 2019), three-inning saves are not making any comeback.

Three-inning outings make the stat more complicated than necessary. The easiest way to fix saves would be ridding the definition of the three-inning aspect and perhaps limiting save situations to when a pitcher has to protect a lead of two runs or one for an inning or more. After all, if a pitcher allows two runs in an inning of work, that’s not exactly an accomplishment either. 

If the save is not changing, then maybe it’s time to come up with a better, simpler stat for closers.

References and Resources

“Save evolves from stat to game-changer,” MLB.com, April 12, 2017.

“The Demise Of The Three-Inning Save,” SB Nation, May 25, 2011.

“How Cardinals manager Tony La Russa rewrote the book, Washington Post, October 18, 2011.

“Nationals explode in 14-4 blowout over Braves,” Field Level Media, May 29, 2019.

“Recap: Angels 15, Rangers 8,”SportsDirect Inc., July 30, 2012.

“The 5 worst saves in MLB history,” The Score, 2014.

“With a 27-Run Cushion, a Save Is in the Books,” The New York Times, August 24, 2007.

MLB.com.

FanGraphs.Baseball.

Baseball-Reference.com.


Tom is a freelance sportswriter based in southeastern Massachusetts who has covered professional baseball since 2013. He has written for ESPN, The Boston Globe, Newsday, USA Today, and many other outlets.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Nice shout out to Jerome Holtzman, one of the greatest sportswriters ever.

evilsquirrel13
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evilsquirrel13

The quirkiest save of all time as to belong to Rangers pitcher Joaquin Benoit, who entered the game against the Orioles with a 4-0 lead and did well to allow only one hit and one run the rest of the game. Sounds ordinary, until you realize that Benoit came in the game to start the bottom of the THIRD inning! His seven inning save is the longest save in Major League history, and one that is only possible due to the fact that two pitchers had preceded him (The starter, Aaron Myette, who only faced one batter before getting ejected…… Read more »

Da Bear
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Da Bear

June 18th, 1961, the second game of a Baltimore-Cleveland doubleheader, saw Dick Hall earn an 8-inning save. Starter Jack Fisher allowed 5 runs in a third of an inning, and after Wes Stock cleaned up the frame on a double play, the O’s immediate 8-run rally in the top of the 2nd forced them to pinch hit for Stock and left Hall to come in afterwards, with Stock being the pitcher of record. There were no more runs or pitching changes for either team after that crazy exchange.

evilsquirrel13
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evilsquirrel13

Thanks for correcting that! That was one of the things I searched for a while back when I had a BR Play Index subscription, and for some reason only the Benoit game and another somewhat recent game came up when I requested saves of longer than four innings.

marcusthelion
Member

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The flaws of the save stat are well known to any serious or long time fan, and those flaws create exceptions that give us something to talk about with the strangers next to us during a blowout… and facilitate articles like this one.
Perfection can be awfully boring in a certain context!

Da Bear
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Da Bear

Just as the “closer” of the last 30 years has evolved into the adoption of the “opener” in the last two, could we ever see a term for pitchers who are used to starting, instead coming in for the middle innings with the expectation of staying through the finish line? Think ’99 Pedro in the ALDS, or most famously Madison Bumgarner to close out the World Series.

Whatever enterprising team is daring enough to adopt that as a serious regular season strategy will at least find some extra saves waiting for them under the current definition.

Paul G.
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Paul G.

One of the fun things about the three inning save is the three inning blown save. Behold the Ziegler!

https://www.mlb.com/gameday/marlins-vs-mets/2017/05/05/490536?#game_state=final,game_tab=box,game=490536

delatopia
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delatopia

Let’s get rid of cheap wins before we bother with cheap saves. Are we really grousing about something that happens less than a half dozen times a year?

bly
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bly

Is pitching 3 innings and then getting an “attaboy” stat really that bad? You’re certainly not pitching the next day and probably not the day after that. A lot can happen in three innings, so I’m OK with this stat.

TKDC
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TKDC

There are also lots of other silly ways to be credited with certain stats, such as wins.

You come into a game down by 3 with 2 outs and nobody on. You load the bases and give up a triple, but the batter-runner is thrown out at home. Then your team comes back to win. You could be credited with the win even though you didn’t do jack.

antone
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antone

If they took the 3 inning save away, how could I ever fulfill the save achievements in The Show if I’m always blowing out the other team?

njguy73
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njguy73

Shutdown/Meltdown Ratio.