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The New Way To Spell Relief
Jim Kaplan
April 12, 1982
SI's comprehensive rating system proves there's more to judging relief pitchers than just counting their wins and saves
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April 12, 1982

The New Way To Spell Relief

SI's comprehensive rating system proves there's more to judging relief pitchers than just counting their wins and saves

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American League

PTS.

ERA

SAVES

IP IN RELIEF

RUNNERS PER 9 IP

HOLDS[1]

W/S/H[2]

1ST BTR ON BASE[3]

+ /-RUN PREVENT[4]

1. Goose Gossage, NY

45

1 (0.77)

2 (20)

1 (6.89)

1 (.875)

5 (.219)

2. Rollie Fingers, Mil

43

2 (1.04)

1 (28)

5 (78)

2 (7.38)

2 (.851)

3. Kevin Saucier, Det

40

4 (1.65)

5 (13)

4 (9.00)

9 (.579)

1 (.132)

3 ( + 14)

4. Dan Quisenberry, KC

35

5 (1.74)

3 (18)

5 (9.73)

4 (.675)

3 (.184)

5. Ron Davis, NY

32

8 (73)

3 (8.51)

1 (21)

3 (.721)

8 (.233)

6. Doug Corbett, Minn.

23

10 (2.56)

4 (17)

3 (88)

9 (10.33)

6 (11)

10 (.556)

7. Sammy Stewart, Balt

22

3 (1.58)

1 (97)

7 (.231)

8. Dave LaRoche, NY

21.5

6 (1.88)

6 (9.84)

4 (12)

6 (.640)

9. Don Aase, Cal

18.5

8 (2.35)

6 (11)

6 (11)

5 (.667)

10 (.237)

10. Kevin Hickey, Chi

16

2 (.146)

4 (+12)

11. Tom Burgmeier, Bos

15

6 (.226)

1 (+16)

12. Lamarr Hoyt, Chi

13

8 (10)

4 (87)

7 (.595)

13. Joey McLaughlin, Tor

13

8 (10)

6 (11)

4 (.200)

14. Roy Lee Jackson, Tor

11.5

2 (15)

8 (.590)

15. Larry Andersen, Sea

10

10 (68)

8 (9.93)

4 (12)

16. Bob Owchinko, Oak

9

2 (+15)

16. Bob Stanley, Bos

9

2 (91)

18. Jamie Easterly, Mil

8.5

2 (15)

18. Tippy Martinez, Bait

8.5

6 (11)

7 (+8)

20. Ed Farmer, Chi

8

8 (10)

5 (+11)

20. Dan Spillner, Clev

8

7 (2.18)

7 (9.87)

22. Jeff Jones, Oak

6.5

23. Andy Hassler, Cal

6

24. Mark Clear, Bos

5

24. Steve Comer, Tex

5

26. Bill Campbell, Bos

2

26. Reggie Cleveland, Mil

2

26. Don Cooper, Minn

2

29. Jerry Garvin, Tor

1.5

30. Shane Rawley, Sea

0.5

31. Jerry Augustine, Mil

0

31. Dick Drago, Sea

0

31. Renie Martin, KC

0

31. Sid Monge, Clev

0

31. Jack O'Connor, Minn

0

31. Tim Stoddard, Balt

0

31. Dave Tobik, Det

0

31. John Verhoeven, Minn

0

1—Awarded to a reliever who, in a minimum one-inning appearance, prevents a lead from decreasing, a deficit from increasing or a tie from becoming a deficit.
2—The percentage of a reliever's overall appearances in which he earns a win, save or hold.
3—If the first batter is walked intentionally, the second batter is the criterion.
4—A reliever who enters a game with fewer than two outs earns + 2 for each runner in scoring position who doesn't score and - 2 for each who scores. If there are two outs, the point totals are +1 and - 3.

After the 1981 season ended, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED asked the Elias Sports Bureau of New York City to research a statistical system that would fairly—and definitively—evaluate relief pitchers. It was our opinion that relievers have never been analyzed properly and that the systems used to rate relievers have substantial flaws. For instance, the Rolaids Relief Man and The Sporting News awards are determined only by a reliever's won-lost record and saves. The antacid promotion—baseball's official standard of reliever supremacy—uses a system that awards two points for each relief win or save and subtracts one point for each relief loss. The Sporting News honor goes to the pitcher with the highest total of relief wins and saves. Both awards use earned run average as a tiebreaker. (Baseball's Basic Agreement offers a third method, but it judges relievers over a two-year period, includes their starting appearances and puts special emphasis on number of appearances and innings pitched.)

The Rolaids and The Sporting News awards are necessarily limited to relievers who get the most opportunities for wins and saves, namely the short relievers. In 1981 Milwaukee's Rollie Fingers and St. Louis' Bruce Sutter—two of baseball's archetypal short men—received the American and National League awards from both Rolaids and The Sporting News; Fingers also won the American League's Cy Young and MVP awards. Nine of the top 10 relievers worked exclusively or primarily in short relief.

The rating system created by SI goes far beyond anything hitherto concocted. Our ratings incorporate eight categories and evaluate long, middle and spot re' lievers as well as short men. And now, with no apologies to Fingers and Sutter, our winners are...Goose Gossage of the Yankees and lefthander Joe Sambito of the Houston Astros, who were Nos. 2 and 7, respectively, in the other ratings. In fact, six of our top 10 finishers (see charts on pages 83 and 86) didn't even appear among the top 10 on the other two lists: long relievers Sammy Stewart of Baltimore and Dave LaRoche of the Yankees, middle reliever Ron Davis of the Yankees, short-middle reliever Jeff Reardon of the Mets and Expos, and short men Tug McGraw of the Phillies and Kevin Hickey of the White Sox. Their subtle contributions went unnoticed in a mere accounting of wins and saves. At the same time, four pitchers who finished high in the awards competitions—Mark Clear of the Red Sox, Steve Howe of the Dodgers, Tippy Martinez of the Orioles and Steve Comer of the Rangers—are barely to be found in our rankings.

The flaw in the Rolaids and The Sporting News systems is their criteria. Wins? A reliever is supposed to hold a game in check, not win it. In fact, relievers often get wins after bad performances. Inheriting a 4-3 lead over the Mets last June 9, the Reds' Tom Hume yielded the tying run on three singles and a walk. But because the Reds rallied to score four runs in the ninth, Hume got the win. Fact is, many premier relievers have relief records that border on .500; Fingers (101-90), Sutter (35-35), Sambito (31-29), Mike Marshall (92-98). Saves? They're awarded only to pitchers who finish games. A successful reliever need not be the Gossage, Fingers or Sutter who gets the last out. He may pitch a couple of innings of useful middle relief, as the Yankees' Davis does better than anyone. He may throw three or more innings of long relief to keep a game close, the specialty of Baltimore's Stewart, who was second in the American League last year with a 2.33 ERA. Or he may be the classy old lefty—Grant Jackson, now with Kansas City, comes to mind—who strolls in at a critical juncture to retire just one or two men. To the awards people, these guys are real nowhere men. (If Rolaids "spells R-E-L-I-E-F," why can't Elmer's Glue-All "spell H-O-L-D?" Elmer could name his award after Horatius, the fellow who held the bridge.)

Back to reality. ERA serves as a good method for judging a pitcher's effectiveness against the batters he faces, but it tells you nothing about his ability to keep the previous pitcher's runners from scoring. Early last season the Royals led the Orioles 2-0 when KC starter Dennis Leonard loaded the bases to start the eighth. Dan Quisenberry relieved and gave up a two-run double and a sacrifice fly, leading to a 3-2 Oriole victory. Because all three runs were charged to Leonard, Quisenberry's disastrous outing wasn't reflected in his stats for the game: 2 IP, 0 ER.

Clearly, the times cry out for new criteria, even if California's Manager Gene Mauch does rail, "We've got too damn many stats in baseball now." Mauch feels that any new stat will inevitably become "just another negotiating tool for some agent," but the fact is that many teams and some individual players have always kept private files. So a public accounting is now in order.

Using the services of Elias, the official statistician of the National League, the NBA and the NFL, and box scores from the 1981 split season, SI has come to the rescue and developed a unique method of measuring relief. Four of our eight statistics—holds, first-batter effectiveness, run prevention and percentage of a pitcher's appearances in which he gets a win, save or hold—have never before been tabulated for all major league teams.

The hold category is an ideal measure for a pitcher like Davis. "Any reliever who helps his team but doesn't win or save should get a hold," he says. "He should get one if he comes in and retires the only batter he faces. He should get one if he preserves a lead or prevents a losing game from getting more one-sided. More than one pitcher on a team can get a hold and you can get them whether or not your team wins." SI's hold category took all of these circumstances into consideration with the proviso that the reliever completed at least one inning.

Davis' leadership in this category isn't surprising. Pitching almost as effectively in the seventh and eighth innings as Gossage did in the ninth, Davis has helped create a new concept in baseball: the six-inning ball game. Opponents had better be leading the Yankees after six; if not, Davis-Gossage will surely shut them down the rest of the way. An instructive outing was June 6 in New York. With the Yankees leading Chicago 2-0 after six, Davis relieved starter Doug Bird. Davis pitched two innings of one-hit ball, Gossage cleaned up in the ninth and the Yankees won 2-0. Strictly routine. Bird got the win, Gossage got the save—and Davis got nothing. We say he deserved a hold. Having created the six-inning ball game, Davis and Gossage now give the Yankees the luxury of harboring six-inning starters.

Middle relievers are notoriously unappreciated. "Middle relief is just treated as nothing," says Sparky Lyle of Philadelphia, who won the Cy Young Award as a Yankee short man in 1977. "You have no chance to make any money." Middle relievers get few saves, and the rare years in which they win big often come when their teams have successful short men. In 1977 Pittsburgh's Kent Tekulve had a 10-1 record, but his teammate Gossage had 26 saves. In 1980 Davis was 9-3 but Gossage was again the bullpen favorite: 33 saves.

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