When it comes to closing out baseball games and earning saves, size and velocity go a long way. They’re not the only things that matter but they do make picking up saves much easier.
So what are saves in baseball?
In baseball, saves occur when a relief pitcher enters the game with a lead of three or fewer runs and pitches the rest of the game without giving up the lead. Saves are predominately earned by closers but can also be earned by a reliever who pitches for at least three innings.
The definition by itself is mostly cut and dry, though the different qualifications for earning a save can be tricky to wrap your head around. So let’s dive in.
What Is a Save in Baseball?
Saves can come in all shapes and sizes, but it all boils down to the key criterion: preserving a late lead and finishing the game.
A pitcher is credited with a save by entering the game in relief with either a lead of three runs or less, the tying run in the on-deck circle or on the bases, or pitches for at least three innings in relief and finishes the game for the winning team without surrendering the lead.
Given the rather lax set of circumstances, there are ample opportunities for pitchers to earn saves, but they all involve preserving leads and finishing the game.
So let’s get into the specifics of how a pitcher gets credited with a save.
How Do Pitchers Earn a Save?
As we covered already, it’s been established that earning a save involves holding a lead, though it should be specified that it’s under certain circumstances.
There are three separate sets of qualifications for earning a save, but a pitcher only has to fulfill one of them to earn a save.
The simplest situation involves a pitcher entering the game in the ninth inning with a lead of three runs or less and recording three outs to end the game. This is also the most common form of save.
This same scenario also applies to situations in extra innings when the visiting team takes a lead of three runs or less in the top half of an inning and a reliever enters the game in the bottom half of the inning and finishes the game for the winning team.
There are also cases of pitchers entering a so-called “save situation” and finishing the game. These situations are often the highest of high-leverage situations and don’t necessarily occur in the ninth. The lead also may be slightly larger than three runs.
One qualification for a save involves the tying run being either on the bases, at bat or on deck.
Under this set of circumstances, if a pitcher enters the game with a five (or four)-run lead, but the bases were loaded, this would qualify as a save situation. If the pitcher finishes the game for the winning team, they get credited with a save.
There is then the rarer circumstance where a pitcher enters the game with a lead in the sixth or seventh and finish the game without giving up the lead.
In these cases, even if the lead is greater than three runs when the pitcher enters the game, he may earn a save as long as he pitches the last three innings or longer.
It should be noted with the final qualification that a pitcher cannot earn both a win and a save in the same game. Because starting pitchers have to go a minimum of five innings to qualify for a win, relievers don’t get many opportunities to earn saves by pitching three or more innings.
However, if a pitcher has a short start and another reliever enters the game and departs with the lead, a pitcher may earn a save if they pitch longer than three innings, though depending on the performance of other relievers, the official scorer could instead award the win to the reliever that finishes the game.
Of course, there are situations where a pitcher can check all three boxes, but at the end of the day, it still only counts as one save.
How Often Do Saves Happen?
With the rules on saves, it’s clear that there are many situations where you can pick one up, however, there are plenty of games where it doesn’t happen, either because the starting pitcher throws a complete game, the game is one-sided, or the home team earns a walk-off win.
All told, in 2019, there were 1,180 saves in MLB in 2,429 games, meaning that 48.6% of games ended with a save. This figure is considerably lower than in years past, as only two other seasons since 1998 have had fewer saves.
For context, 2015 had a record 1,292 saves, with 53.2% of games finishing with a save.
The rise of save totals has coincided with the increased use of relief pitching in baseball. For example, in 1920, more than 56% of games saw the starting pitcher throw a complete game (1392 in total).
Consequently, teams averaged less than ten saves that season (147 total among 16 teams). However, complete game and save numbers inched closer together over the ensuing decades.
In the 1970s, these numbers briefly drifted apart again, but in 1980, there were more saves (902) than complete games (856) for the first time in Major League Baseball history…and it’s happened every year since.
Around 1990, the rate of games with a save more or less stabilized to the modern rate, with teams averaging approximately 40 saves a year, which remains the case today.
How Did Saves Come to Be?
When baseball was founded in the mid-19th century, there was no comprehension of a save, or even relief pitching at all.
Of course, the actual game looked considerably different than it does today, but regardless, well into the 20th century, pitchers were expected to complete their starts, and usually did more often than not.
The idea of the save came around in the 1950s, mainly among baseball executives, with sportswriter Jerome Holtzman finally giving the save a definition in 1959.
The save became an official statistic in 1969, but through extensive research, records of saves have been retroactively tabulated dating to the early days of Major League Baseball nearly a century earlier.
The rules were slightly different at first, and ultimately the modern-day form of the save rule was instituted in 1975.
Of course, not all saves are created equal. In the early years of the statistic, relievers were deployed considerably differently than now.
Top-end relievers were frequently used for multiple innings at a time, to the point that, according to Fangraphs, in 1977 Major League Baseball teams recorded 180 saves of at least three innings.
However, reliever usage changed in the 1980s, with Dennis Eckersley widely considered the first “one-inning” closer, who was used almost exclusively in the ninth inning.
Teams quickly copied this approach, with the number of three-inning saves declining from 146 in 1987 to 42 in 1993 and four in 2010.
On the other hand, though, 32 saves of three or more innings were recorded in 2019, which was the highest figure since 2001.
At this point, we’ve covered how a pitcher gets a save and how it has evolved. Now, what happens when a pitcher comes on for the save and doesn’t convert it? Well, he blows the save.
What Is a Blown Save?
Of course, a pitcher won’t always convert a save opportunity, so there is another statistic created to reflect those situations where things go awry for the pitcher, and that statistic is aptly referred to as the “blown save”.
Specifically, a blown save is given to a pitcher who enters the game in a save situation but allows the tying and/or go-ahead run to score.
Blown saves can only be picked up in the same situation that saves can, however, there is a key difference. Of course, saves can only be awarded to a pitcher who finishes the game, but a pitcher who blows a save does not have to finish the game.
It is possible for pitchers on both teams and/or even multiple pitchers on the same team to earn a blown save in the same game. In fact, in one 1995 game, the Houston Astros had no fewer than four blown saves in a single game, which not too surprisingly, they lost.
While it is possible for a team to blow multiple saves in a game, a single pitcher cannot blow multiple saves in one contest.
For example, if a relief pitcher gives up a lead, then sees his team regain the lead, he becomes the pitcher of record (i.e. in line to earn the win), but it is no longer a save situation unless another pitcher relieves him with the lead intact.
In other words, while it’s not possible for the same pitcher to earn a win and a save in one game, a pitcher can earn a win and a blown save in one game.
While saves are a relatively new statistic, blown saves are even newer, with the stat being invented in 1988 by researchers who wanted to see how often relievers (and teams) give up leads compared to how often they convert them.
Also in the 1980s, yet another official statistic related to the save was introduced: the hold. Hold up—what is hold? Well, let’s explain.
What Is a Hold in Baseball?
The hold is another statistic that is solely for relievers. The hold is a statistic that is a sort of “pre-save” if you will, devised primarily for middle relievers and set-up men.
A hold is when a relief pitcher enters the game in a save situation, then successfully hands off a lead to another reliever while recording at least one out.
Because holds can only be earned in save situations, a pitcher must enter with either a three-run lead or less, or with the tying run on base, at the plate, or in the on-deck circle.
Holds are lesser-known in baseball, in part because they are not an official statistic of Major League Baseball. As a result, many statistical services do not log holds on their official ledgers.
Some box scores may show them on pitching lines (usually denoted as H, number), but otherwise, hold totals can be hard to find.
For example, long-time relief pitcher Arthur Rhodes holds the MLB record with 231 holds.
However, if you go to Rhodes’ page on Baseball-Reference—arguably the most comprehensive statistics site out there—you would need to go to his Advanced Pitching stats and scroll down to the seventh table on the page to find his holds total. In other words, you have to dig to find numbers on holds.
Like blown saves, multiple pitchers can earn a hold in a game. Because relievers frequently go just one inning at a time, a team could have two, or even three relievers earn a hold in a single game.
Just like a save, a pitcher cannot earn a win (or save) and a hold. Additionally, a pitcher can’t record a hold and a blown save in the same game either.
Furthermore, there is no such thing as a blown hold. As a result, if a pitcher whose only job may be to hold a run lead for the seventh inning, but cannot do so, he would be saddled with a blown save.
Despite their relative obscurity, though, holds do serve a statistical purpose, as they can help indicate how effective pitchers are at holding slim leads late in games.
Since middle relievers and set up men don’t record lofty save totals, their number of holds is one way to help gauge the performance of pitchers who are in those roles.
So now that you have a better idea at what a save and a hold are, you will know what’s on the line the next time a reliever trots out of the bullpen late in a game.
Odds and Ends
- The most saves in a career is 652, held by Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. The single-season record is 62, set by Francisco Rodriguez of the Los Angeles Angels in 2007.
- From 2002-04, Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne set a Major League Baseball record by converting 84 consecutive saves, including a perfect 55-for-55 season in 2003.
- The longest save in Major League Baseball history is a 7-inning effort by Joaquin Benoit of the Texas Rangers on September 3, 2002. Starting pitcher Aaron Myette was ejected on the first batter of the game and Todd Van Poppel threw two innings of relief to earn the win before Benoit entered the game with a 4-0 run lead and finished it off.
- Despite the Texas Rangers becoming the first Major League Baseball team to score 30 runs in a game in a 30-3 win over Baltimore on August 22, 2007, Rangers pitcher Wes Littleton pitched the final three innings, earning a save despite the 27-run margin of victory.
- As previously noted, the Major League Baseball record for holds in a career is 231 by Arthur Rhodes. The single-season record is 41, shared by Tampa Bay’s Joel Peralta in 2013 and Pittsburgh’s Tony Watson in 2015.