The save stat has come under scrutiny in recent years. With the explosion of sabermetrics, analysts have railed against the stat, arguing it’s become an outdated way to measure a reliever’s performance.
Washington Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley provided some solid evidence to that argument during Sunday’s game against the Oakland Athletics.
The Nationals entered the ninth inning with a pretty strong 11-4 lead. Manager DustyBaker stuck with closer Koda Glover to open the inning. Glover was brought into the contest in the eighth to get the final out. At the time, the Nationals only led by two. Baker stuck with him even after the team scored five runs in the top of the ninth.
That proved to be a poor decision. Glover gave up four straight singles and a walk to open the bottom of the ninth. With the Athletics now trailing 11-6, and the bases still loaded, Baker decided to go to Kelley to get out of the jam.
Things looked promising at first, as Kelley got Rajai Davis to pop out for the first out of the inning. That brought Matt Joyce to the plate. On the third pitch of the at-bat, Joyce belted an 81 mph slider to right for a grand slam. That made it a one-run game. The Athletics trailed 11-10.
They would get no more. Kelley got Chad Pinder to ground out to third, and then got Jed Lowrie to pop out in foul territory to end the game. He was able to recover after giving up the grand slam. The Nationals won the nail-biter 11-10.
The reward for Kelley’s performance: His fourth save of the season!
Yes, Kelley was awarded with a save despite giving up a grand slam. That’s not something you see every day. In fact, the last time it happened was nearly a decade ago.
Hey @EliasSports, has anybody ever been credited with a save in a game in which he surrendered a grand slam?
— Mark Zuckerman (@MarkZuckerman) June 4, 2017
last time was August 21, 2007, Marcus Gwyn, slam hit by Garret Anderson.
— Ryan M. Spaeder (@theaceofspaeder) June 4, 2017
Kelley’s final line didn’t really reflect his performance. In the box score, it shows Kelley giving up one run on one hit over an inning of work. The three runners on base for the grand slam were credited to Glover. Despite being charged with five earned runs over one-third of an inning, Glover picked up a hold.
That highlights the issues with the save stat, no? Kelley technically did his job by not allowing the A’s to complete the comeback, but you can’t say he pitched well. Part of his job is trying to strand as many runners as he can, and he failed there.
But if you need further proof that the save stat is silly, consider the scenario here. Kelley was credited with a save even though he entered the game with a five-run lead. How is that possible?
One of the conditions of Major League Baseball Rule 10.20 states a save situation occurs when:
[A pitcher] enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck.
In this instance, the tying run was in the on-deck circle. That’s why Kelley was rewarded with the save even though the Nationals had a five-run lead when he entered the game.
That seems pretty arbitrary. As this example shows, it doesn’t take a ton of skill to hold on to a five-run lead. In fact, you have to try pretty hard to blow one. That almost happened here, but the end result is still a positive for Kelley.
This is just one of the strange quirks of the stat. The bigger issue is that managers still adhere to it and treat it like gospel. While it’s improved in recent years, most managers will still hold their closers in tie games for leads that may never come. In the process, they usually cycle through lesser options just in case a save situation pops up in the future. This can backfire terribly. Remember how Buck Showalter used Ubaldo Jimenez over Zach Britton in last year’s wild card game? Yeah, we do too.
That wasn’t the case here, but it still another example of the stat being misleading. That’s not to say relievers aren’t valuable, or that holding on to a one-run lead isn’t difficult. It is more evidence that, when evaluating relievers, it’s not wise to rely heavily on save totals.
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