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The Demise Of The Three-Inning Save

On Friday night in Boston, Scott Atchison pitched the last three innings of the Red Sox' 15-5 blowout of the Cubs. In so doing, the journeyman right-hander posted his first major league save, by MLB rule 10.19, which states that a pitcher is awarded a save under these conditions:

(a) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his team;
(b) He is not the winning pitcher;
(c) He is credited with at least a third of an inning pitched; and
(d) He satisfies one of the following conditions:
(1) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning;
(2) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on base or is one of the first two batters he faces); or
(3) He pitches for at least three innings.

Atchison qualified for his save under the last of these definitions. Normally, this would not be remarkable -- except this was the first three-inning save of the 2011 baseball season.

With the advent of the ninth-inning closer in baseball over the last 20 years, the idea of a "save" has been morphed from a pitcher who might come in the game in the seventh or eighth inning and finish up, to a pitcher who rarely throws a pitch before the ninth inning. Mariano Rivera, widely acknowledged to be the best closer in major league history, made only five appearances in 2010 (of 61 total games) of more than one inning, and has just one this year.

This trend has been evident for several decades. In 1969, the first year the save was officially codified, there were 93 three-inning saves. That increased to 159 in 1973 and 180 in 1977, the year Cubs manager Herman Franks refused to use closer Bruce Sutter unless the Cubs were at least tied, if not ahead. This led to other managers following this scheme, although three-inning saves declined only slightly by 1987, to 146.

Why is 1987 a critical moment in time for these types of saves? Because during that season, Dennis Eckersley became the Athletics' closer under manager Tony La Russa. La Russa began using Eckersley only in the ninth inning, and only when the A's were ahead, becoming the first manager to use his closer in the modern sense. Three-inning saves began a precipitous decline; 110 in 1988, 90 in 1990, 52 in 1992 and 42 in 1993, as GM's and managers began to acquire and use pitchers in the Eckersley mode.

The number of three-inning saves stayed fairly steady after 1993 until 2001, when they made this drop:

2001: 35
2002: 26
2003: 31
2004: 20
2005: 14
2006: 15
2007: 16
2008: 16
2009: 13
2010: 4
2011: 1

This decline is due to the extreme specialization of bullpens, the use of LOOGYs (Left-handed One Out GuYs), the decline in complete games (there have been 55 CG in 2011 for all MLB teams, less than two per team so far, and 14 teams have one or none). This specialization has led to many managers insisting that a "long reliever" is someone who goes two innings; despite 12- and 13-man pitching staffs on virtually all teams today, very few managers keep around a "long man" who could go four or five innings in a blowout game and save the rest of the bullpen. Often, you will see a manager have a pitcher throw the seventh and eighth innings when his team is up by several runs, and then, even if that pitcher hasn't allowed a baserunner and thrown, say, 20-25 pitches, will replace him anyway for the ninth inning.

It is for that reason that we salute Terry Francona for leaving Scott Atchison in to finish up last Friday's game in Boston and record the very first three-inning save of the 2011 season. The way things are going, it may be the only one.

Finally, a shout-out is also due to Wes Littleton of the 2007 Texas Rangers and his manager, Ron Washington. In the first game of a doubleheader on August 22, 2007, Littleton came into the game in the bottom of the seventh inning with the Rangers leading 14-3. Texas then proceeded to score 10 runs in the eighth and nine in the ninth. Washington left Littleton in the game; he recorded a three-inning save, one of three in Wes' brief major league career, in a game his team won by 27 runs.