'Silly Goose' Gossage, Mariano Rivera, and 'the myth of the 7-out Save,' Baseball Prospectus Guest, Kevin Baker. Fact checking Erik Boland Newsday article
10/31/11, "Silly Goose: Mariano Rivera and the Myth of the Seven-Out Save," Kevin Baker, Guest at Baseball Prospectus, "Baseball ProGuestUs"
"I used to love watching Goose Gossage pitch. With that wonderful rising fastball he was one of the best examples ever of the pure power game....
That’s why I was happy to see him elected to the Hall of Fame, an honor he heartily deserved. Gossage’s approach to the Hall was as straightforward as his pitching style. He campaigned actively by pointing out how much harder relief pitchers were worked back in his day than now, and how much more difficult it was to run up impressive save totals.
His points were well-taken, and now that he’s in the Hall…
- I wish he would shut up.
- impressionable young minds we call sportswriters and broadcasters.
- but what he’s doing is easy. It really is.”
Let’s have a quick show of (liver-spotted) hands: What springs to mind when you hear Goose Gossage talking about how “easy” it is to get through an inning without giving up three runs?
George Brett hitting a three-run homer into the upper deck of Yankee Stadium to clinch the 1980 ALCS for the Royals? Yes, thank you, Yankees fans!
Can I get an “amen” from the Padres fans out there? Remember Kirk Gibson going deep to wrap up the 1984 World Series for the Tigers with a three-run blast…the inning after Lance Parrish
- had already homered off Gossage? You stay classy, San Diego!
- surrendering mammoth, three-run homers.
In that game, the Goose was actually given a three-run lead at one point…and barely survived, surrendering hits or walks to six of the last eleven Red Sox he faced. Save for a terrific head fake by Lou Piniella in right field,
- Boston would probably have tied the game in the ninth.
Unfortunately, thanks to Goose, Fox’s Greg Couch joined all too many commentators in
- damning The Great One’s record-breaking 603 saves with faint praise.
What would be a better one?
Well, Couch quotes approvingly a definition that’s been bandied about a lot recently. That is, a save of “seven outs or more”—or over two innings. Goose Gossage has 52 of these in the regular season, he informs us; Mariano Rivera…one, Trevor Hoffman, two. Optimally, what a real closer does, according to Couch and Goose, is to “come in during the
- seventh inning, bases loaded, one-run lead.”
I’m sorry, but just when did we start handing out style points for degree of difficulty? This is baseball, not gymnastics or figure skating. The idea is to win. If Mr. Couch covered music, would he be sneering, “Nice concerto, Mr. Heifetz. But let’s see you play it while crossing a high wire—riding a tricycle?”
I’ll concede that there are plenty of problems with the current save statistic. And some day, in baseball’s equivalent of punctuated equilibrium, a manager will climb out of the antediluvian ooze and try using his best relief pitcher in the most critical moment of the game, whether or not that’s in the ninth inning. (Although this is expecting a lot of prescience from the poor manager
- and it still leaves that pesky ninth for someone to get through.)
- It’s that Goose Gossage should’ve been used more like Mariano Rivera.
- too often sent charging into the guns, in acts of idiotic bravado.
Why seven outs and not, say, six, or nine? The whole idea seems at least as arbitrary and fabricated as the original save stat. For that matter, Gossage’s 52 Supersaves become a lot less impressive when you take into account the fact that he was a major-league pitcher for 22 seasons, and a reliever for 21 of them.
Thanks to the brilliant statistical work of Baseball Prospectus’ own Bradley Ankrom, we can report that the Goose was in fact only the master of the extended save
- for a few seasons,
- most of them near the beginning of that very long career.
Pretty spectacular. But this was clearly a young man’s game, and the Goose would not last at it. In 1978, at age 27, Gossage racked up six more Supersaves—but also blew six such chances. He had only two more good years at this sort of work—1980, when he converted nine of 11, and 1984, when he was six of seven.
After that, for the last nine years of his career, he racked up exactly four more saves of seven outs or more, while blowing two. Nor was the save rule always unkind to him; one of these “Supersaves” consisted of pitching four innings—
- beginning with an eight-run lead.
- unacceptable to most teams today.
- just how many games
- Goose Gossage managed to lose,
- compared to all leading closers today.
- and blew 22 saves—in other words, almost one-third
Mariano Rivera, by contrast, has never lost more than six games in any one season, in his 15 straight years as the Yankees’ closer and another as their set-up man. He has blown more than six saves only once, in 1997, his first year as a closer, when he gave it up nine times.
It’s a big reason why Mo’s failures are so memorable. He reached almost ridiculous heights of efficiency in 2008 and 2009, blowing one and two saves, respectively, out of a total of 86 opportunities. It’s why his lifetime percentage of saves is a mind-blowing, all-time high of 90 percent,
- while Gossage’s is only 73.5 percent.
- In 1978, just 69 percent,
- in 1982, only about 77 percent;
- 1983, 63 percent;
- 1984, 69 percent;
- 1986, 66 percent,
- 1987, 65 percent;
- 1988, 56.5 percent…
Goose’s best years in terms of the percentages of games he would win and save out of the pen? Well, unsurprisingly, these tended to be in the seasons when he was used the most judiciously, if only by accident.
Limited to 36 appearances and 58.1 innings in 1979, when Cliff Johnson broke his thumb in a showerroom brawl, the Goose saved a career-high 90 percent of his 21 save opportunities. In 1981, limited to just 32 appearances and 46.2 innings by an owners’ lockout, he was nearly untouchable, saving 87 percent of his opportunities (20 of 23), losing only two games, surrendering just 22 hits, two home runs, and 14 walks, and compiling an ERA of 0.77.
You’d think somebody would have noticed just how much better the Goose did with more rest, and someone did—namely Dick Howser, the most perspicacious of all Gossage’s managers during this period. Howser limited him to “just” 99 innings in 1980, a full season…in which the Goose went 6-2 and saved 33 of 37 games, including nine Supersaves.
Unfortunately for Gossage and the Yankees, Howser was fired after that one season (in no small part because of Goose’s insistence that he could throw a fastball past George Brett, a concept he never would rid himself of). Then in his thirties, the Goose was once again given over to the care and maintenance of managers who refused to make much allowance for his age or condition.
I thought I remembered him being used in a particularly egregious fashion in 1983, which marked one of Billy Martin’s later and uglier incarnations as Yankees manager. Thanks once more to Bradley Ankrom, I was able to check if this was really so. Sure enough, it was.
To be sure, Gossage’s overall innings totals remained more limited. But day to day, his use seemed more mindless than ever. Here, for instance, was the Goose’s first appearance: entering the second game of the season with one out in the bottom of the eighth inning and the Yankees trailing Seattle, 6-2.
Why, exactly? To beat the spread? Because Martin had dinner reservations at the Space Needle?
This set a pattern. Gossage would enter seven more games that year with his team trailing in the seventh inning or later, four of which they were losing by more than one run. Only once would they rally to win.
If there ever was a manager willing to indulge a pitcher’s desire to get out on the mound and stay there, it was Billy Martin. Throughout 1983, Gossage—now 32 years old—would
- attempt six more Supersaves but convert only one of them.
- and clearly seemed less able to get outs when he wanted them.
Throughout that 1983 season, it struck me that Gossage—now an older pitcher who probably required more time to get ready—gave up more hits and walks than ever to the first batter or two he faced, then seemed to settle down. Yet Martin almost never seemed to use him to start an inning.
The record confirms this, too. Of his 57 appearances in 1983, just four of them started an inning. In all but four of these, there was already at least one man on base. As for the “thrill” of coming in with the bases loaded…it was limited to the other team’s dugout. Goose faced that situation exactly four times all year—
- and every time, he surrendered hits that scored one or two runs.
- but also blowing eight saves.
Goose coming in mid-inning in 1983 suffered all five of his losses and all 13 of his blown saves, compiling a 2.32 ERA. His four appearances starting an inning are too small to be statistically meaningful, but it is interesting to note that while he gave up five hits and two walks in those six innings, he surrendered just one run and saved a game.
The moral here is, take care of your tools—or your weapons—and they’ll take care of you. “Abused,” as he claimed, for most of his career, Goose was in serious decline as a relief pitcher by his early thirties…whereas Mariano continues as one of the very best relievers
- in the game at 42.
- But like so much else of which they speak, it ain’t necessarily so.
These closers threw different pitches and had different backgrounds, but they all had one thing in common: either they burned out after a few wildly successful seasons, or they
- suffered mysterious “off years” throughout their careers.
“Never save a pitcher for tomorrow. Tomorrow it might rain,” was Leo Durocher’s famous adage, and it became their watchword, even though it was never supposed to apply to relievers throwing on a daily basis.
Goose Gossage had enough arm strength, enough bulk, and enough mental toughness to endure much longer than this generation of abused pitchers, and he deserves all the accolades he’s won. But too often, his remarkable gifts were wasted—the baseball equivalent of blindly throwing cavalry at artillery batteries (a tactic that would be immortalized as, “The Charge of the Light Brigade”).
The very idea of a relief pitcher is that of someone who has one extraordinary pitch—and one only. If they have more, they are being wasted as a reliever and should be moved into the starting rotation. Overusing a reliever not only weakens his arm over the long run of the season or his career, it also provides hitters with the opportunity to adjust to his specialty pitch—and given enough opportunities, at least in the same game, major-league hitters will adjust to any pitch you can throw.
Here’s one more statistic to throw the trade-off between save and Supersave into full relief: over the course of his career, Goose Gossage threw some 600 more innings than Mariano Rivera (although 224 of these came in Goose’s one season used almost exclusively as a starter, while Rivera threw only 67.1 in 1995, when the Yanks gave him 10 starts).
However, by the year he turned 35, Gossage was throwing fewer innings per season than Rivera was for every year he was the same age. And throughout their respective careers,
- Mo almost always logged more appearances.
- less available to his team and less effective over the course of his career?
- which is: Who’s better? Who’s the best?
To wonder if Mariano could have carried Goose’s old pitching load without breaking down is about as useful as wondering if Roy Halladay could have pitched four hundred innings a year, the way Joe McGinnity and Happy Jack Chesbro did over a hundred years ago. (The answer is…yes, probably, if you started all the games in the late afternoon and handed Mr. Halladay a ball he could spit on, rub any sort of gunk on, and not replace until it had become a wobbly, soggy, gray mess.)
Certainly, Rivera doesn’t have Gossage’s bulk…although as a young set-up man back in 1996, he did throw 107 innings, firing almost entirely fastballs that moved as much as the Goose’s ever did. Could Mo have kept up that pace year in and year out, even with his famous cutter? Who knows? Gossage certainly didn’t; his effectiveness falling off as dramatically
- as his yearly innings by his early-to-mid thirties.
- although again, who knows?
This would mean that he has played his entire career with a handicap unlike anything that Goose was ever subjected to. Would a fastball pitcher with a wild streak, stubbornly maintaining that he could throw his ball past anyone, anytime, really have fared so well in an age of steroidal hitters who specialize in working pitch counts? Just how many of all those impressive Gossage innings included popping up bandy-legged shortstops on the first pitch, or getting batters to fly out to the far reaches of stadiums built mainly for football?
Maybe Gossage would’ve made adjustments. The great ones usually do…although it’s hard not to forget the famous footage of the Goose talking Dick Williams out of making him walk Kirk Gibson intentionally in the eighth inning of that 1984 World Series finale, while over in the other dugout,
- Sparky Anderson bet Gibson ten dollars that Gossage would pitch to him.
- Team be damned—it was all about how hard the Goose could throw.
But in his postseason appearances, which by now have amounted to an extra season, or maybe two seasons, of pitching, Rivera is even better…much better. Against the best teams in baseball, with everything at stake, he’s run up an 8-1 record, with 42 saves in 47 attempts, allowing 21 walks and 81 hits against 110 strikeouts
- in 141 innings and compiling an ERA of 0.70.
You want seven outs? Mariano has provided four such appearances in the postseason; in none of them did he allow a run or an inherited runner to score. They included a couple of the most memorable playoff games in history; his coming out, a 3.1-inning victory over Seattle in the 1995 American League Division Series, and the three unforgettable innings he pitched to win the “Aaron Boone game” against Boston in
- the ALCS finale in 2003.
You want more than one inning? Mo has another 24 one-inning-plus playoff appearances to his credit, earning another 16 saves and a hold.
In other words, 57 of Rivera’s 96 playoff appearances have been for more than one inning. In them, he has run up half of his
- eight postseason wins and
You want inherited runners? In nearly a third of his playoff appearances—30 out of 96—Rivera has entered the game with runners on base; a total of 48 of them,
- 14 of them on second, 11 on third.
And yes, he’s come into postseason games with the bases loaded. He did it in his first year in the playoffs against Seattle, age 25, and he did it just this fall, in the ALDS against Detroit, age nearly 42.
- In each case, he struck out the next batter to end the inning.
That was the only time he ever did it. But he also managed to blow three of eleven save opportunities in his postseason career, as well as effectively taking San Diego out of that last game of the 1984 World Series. In 1980, he wouldn’t have even had to face George Brett had he not given up a two-out single to Royals’ shortstop U.L. Washington (who’s “embarrassed” now?).
Yet somehow these blips have dropped from most sportswriters’ memories, while one after another
- felt obliged to bring up the fact that Rivera “had his failures” in the postseason,
- almost as if he were the Greg Norman of relief pitching.
- and only tied Game Five of that series.
The other three came within a space of 13 days in the 2004 playoffs, after a season in which Rivera had set career marks in appearances and saves, with 69 and 53, respectively. In the midst of this period,
- he had to make a hurried flight to Panama and back to deal with the tragic death of his cousins in a pool accident.
The other two, of course, came against Boston. One was Game Five of the ALCS, in which Mo gave up a sacrifice fly to tie the game after coming in men on first and third—something that tells you most of what you need to know about the problems with the save statistic. The other was the famous “Dave Roberts game”—
- although here again, Rivera,
- in his second inning of work, gave up the tying but not the winning run.
Throughout his career, Mariano Rivera has been the most brilliant of weapons, a stiletto expertly applied to win a great many ballgames with his one, unhittable pitch. What he has done is unique in the history not just of baseball, but all athletics:
appearing for a decade-and-a-half, only when the game is on the line, and succeeding nine times out of ten in preserving victory.
- No other athlete in a team sport has ever performed so consistently under pressure.
- he has performed better than ever.
- they only make themselves look foolish."
- Among comments to BP on the above article:
"Couldn't agree more. I would love to be able to love Goose, but he's such a jerk about Rivera it makes it hard. One big difference between the workloads of the two pitchers is the quality of the batter faced. In the 70s and 80s relatively few hitters were able to punish a pitcher in comparison those of the 90s and 00s. Rivera has been amazing during in an era when middle-infielders hit 30/40/50 homeruns in a season. Most of the SS that Goose faced didn't hit 50 in a career. I never could figure out a proper way to frame a study of results vs. top quality opposition to see who fared better against the best opponents. Results vs. players with OPS+ >100? Per season? Per career?"
9 related links:
1. 1/6/06, "It's an insult to me to even be compared to Mariano Rivera, it really is....The job is easy compared to what we used to do. It's apples and oranges." "Gossage beyond compare," Denver Post, Jim Armstrong
2. 1/5/08--Gossage admits he had it easier than today's pitchers: "Gossage's strong opinions have not been limited to his own career. He thinks there ought to be some method of denoting in baseball's history books that offense increased in the 1990s and 2000s, partly because of smaller ballparks, tightly wrapped baseballs and a shrinking strike zone."...
3. 10/25/01--CNN/SI.com, "Rivera Like Closers of Old" and here.
"In an era when closers often come with a "Handle with Care" label, Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera is a true throwback.
- Most managers pamper their high-priced closers, bringing them in for the last three outs of a game after an unheralded setup guy wiggles out of the eighth-inning jam.
- But Rivera in October is different.
- He's Rollie Fingers without the handlebar mustache,
- Goose Gossage without the showmanship.
4. 7/15/10, "Just How good is Mariano Rivera," by Dr. Michael Hoban, Seamheads.com “Mariano Rivera is the best reliever in baseball history.” [Based on regular season only].
5. 2007 book, "At this point in his career, Mo Rivera is way ahead of the HOF standard and could emerge as the greatest relief pitcher to date." BASEBALL’S BEST: The TRUE Hall of Famers," by Michael Hoban, Ph.D. "Chapter 11, Two Special Categories of Pitchers," "Now, what about the true relief pitchers, that is, those who had very few (or no) starts and spent the bulk of their careers in relief? Is there any way that we can arrive at a fair standard for HOF induction for these pitchers based strictly on the numbers? Of course, we need a tough standard that only the truly outstanding relievers will meet." [This study didn't include post season or All Star].
6. 9/20/11, "The Best Reliever of All Time, Mariano Rivera," FanGraphs, Steve Slowinski [Based on regular season only]
7. 4/25/12, "''A lot of times, people don't understand mentally and physically how you have to overextend when you go to the playoffs and World Series,'' (Dusty) Baker said. ''You're still pitching while everybody else is home resting. That's a lot more. And you have less time to recover for next year. You have a shorter winter. ''Winning takes its toll, big time. There's nothing better than that, but it takes its toll.''"..."7 closers on DL, showing it's a high-risk job," AP
8. 3/6/10, "Pinstripes Then, Now and Forever," NY Times, Joe Brescia
"A.(Gossage): When I was inducted into the Hall of Fame, I was told that I had 53 saves with seven-plus outs. I was told that Mariano had one and Trevor Hoffman had two. So I think that says it in a nutshell.
Q. (NY Times): How do you think you would do if you were closing games today?
A. It’s hard to say what my statistics would be if I was used for only one inning like these guys. I had longevity. When I got a one-inning save, I felt guilty. Guys would kid me: “You’re going to take that? Does that count?”"
9. Gossage gives up 2 home runs in deciding game of 1984 World Series.
Ed. note: In addition to lack of character Gossage shows signs of serious mental problems.
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