Holtzman helped 'save' baseball
Historian's idea sparked interest in new area of game
Goose Gossage will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this Sunday, the second time within three years that a lone former reliever (also Bruce Sutter in 2006) has been enshrined. The save statistic helped make that possible.
Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels just reached 40 saves in a season faster than anyone. Mariano Rivera of the Yankees is just 11 saves away from passing Lee Smith for second place on the career list with 478, behind Padres closer Trevor Hoffman (541).
Brian Fuentes is just one save away from tying the Rockies' all-time record of 102 held by Jose Jimenez. Atlanta's John Smoltz is a likely candidate for Cooperstown for various reasons, not the least of which is that his 200-plus victories are augmented by 100-plus saves.
"The save brought attention to an area of the game that was taken for granted," Smoltz said on Monday night after hearing the news of Jerome Holtzman's passing. "It's given credit to guys who play a big part in what the game has evolved into now.
"I don't know if [Holtzman] envisioned the save being what it is today. But there's no doubt that it has allowed a lot of guys to get deserved credit for what they do."
The save is a fact of life for a baseball fan today, whether it is your team's closer nailing down the last out of an ordinary regular season victory or whether it was Jonathan Papelbon finishing off last year's World Series at Colorado. It is a metric that decides player salaries, a variable that looms large on your fantasy baseball team.
None of this would be an element in Major League Baseball had it not been for Holtzman. Perhaps someone would have developed the true formula to scientifically gauge the success of relievers, but it was him who made it happen in a time when it seemed like no idea was too radical for the sport.
The Dodgers and Giants already had left New York for the West Coast, and the wheels were in motion for the sanctity of a 154-game regular season to be pulverized with a new 162-game schedule. Expansion loomed everywhere, and planes had replaced trains as the desirable method of team travel. Trader Frank Lane was about to ship ultra-popular Rocky Colavito out of Cleveland, managers would be swapped, players would threaten to form a new league and gradually develop leverage ... why not throw out new ideas?
It was against that backdrop over the 1959-60 seasons that Holtzman, a Chicago baseball writer, developed his idea. Another Chicago newspaperman, Arch Ward, had come up with the idea for an All-Star Game. Here was Jerome's, simply put: Reward relievers. Acknowledge them. Praise them for a job well done. Create a statistic just like they have to gauge starting pitchers and batters, and then compare them.
"I didn't invent it. What I did was create the first formula for the save," Holtzman wrote in his Sept. 16, 2003 column on MLB.com. "The term 'save' had been in use as far back as 1952, five years before I started covering baseball."
Holtzman recalled that Elroy Face's 18-1 season in 1959 as a Pirates reliever was the impetus for his initiative. Face had won 10 of those games after giving up the lead or tying run, bailed out by a formidable Pittsburgh offense, so Holtzman sensed the need to portray that pattern somehow. Then he found it in 1960, watching the Cubs' righty-lefty bullpen tandem of Don Elston and Bill Henry constantly protecting leads and receiving little attention for it outside of Chicago.
While on a trip to St. Louis with the Cubs early that season, Holtzman was riding on the team bus and he showed his "save" formula to Lou Boudreau. It was given a thumbs-up, and soon thereafter, Holtzman sent his idea to J.G. Taylor Spink, the legendary longtime editor of The Sporting News, then "The Bible of Baseball." Spink paid him "$100 or $200" and the publication took credit for the idea, while Holtzman wrote weekly columns and analyzed the bullpen picture. The Sporting News started giving out its Reliever of the Year awards with that 1960 season, based on Holtzman's formula.
The save was adopted by MLB as an official statistic in 1969, marking the first new major stat since the RBI was adopted in 1920. By that time, there was something called an Astrodome in Houston, where they played on a rug. There were four expansion teams in one year alone: Kansas City, San Diego, Montreal and Seattle. Mounds were lowered. Curt Flood brought free agency. Why not a reliever stat?
Nearly a half-century after Holtzman's formula was created, Rivera stands high on his own pinstriped pedestal with 467 saves (24 in 2008), all of them with the Yankees, on the way one day to a hallowed Gallery Room status up the state in New York. Rivera knows the history of his craft and was saddened to hear of Holtzman's passing. He said he had met him a couple of times over the years.
"I introduced myself," Rivera said. "I thanked him for the opportunity, for inventing that. It was a good thing to meet him. It's sad that he passed away.
"He opened the eyes of a lot of people. Managers, scouts, all that stuff. He created that, and look what it's become. It's become a tremendous force."
Brandon Lyon had 20 saves for the D-backs entering this week, and he knows that his own livelihood is measured that way.
"The wins and losses were probably the big stat before all this," he said. "For a reliever, that's a tough stat to get. You always want the starting pitcher going out there to get the six, seven or eight innings, even back in the day going nine. A lot of guys had complete games in the past, until they got the close pitch count information.
"This has obviously changed a lot for everybody for the relievers and for everybody in the bullpen. It's helped the game out a lot. Ever since I can remember, there's always been the save. I don't know how long the hold stat has been around, but as far as I can remember, there's always been saves."
To answer Lyon's question: According to a story by Robert Falkoff of MLB.com in June 2004, the hold was invented in 1986 by The Chicago Baseball Report's John Dewan and Mike O'Donnell. It gives middlemen and setup guys a stat to cling to while starters strive for wins and closers compile saves. A hold is credited any time a relief pitcher enters a game in a save situation, records at least one out and leaves the game never having relinquished the lead. STATS Inc. tracks holds retroactive to 1974.
Fuentes said upon hearing the news Monday that he did not realize Holtzman's impact on his own professional life. For many young players, as well as many fans, it is a legacy of learning left behind.
"I guess it's fortunate for me that saves are recognized for being important," he said.
"I hadn't even heard about his death on SportsCenter. It's weird that a guy would come up with a stat and it's such a big thing that baseball would end up recognizing it."
Holtzman lived long enough to see the impact of the closer felt in Cooperstown. Gossage is about to be the latest example, with Smith still knocking on the ballot door. The formula itself has been modified slightly over time. As Holtzman said himself in a 2005 interview, "You had to face the tying run, and it changed the next year to the tying run had to be in the on-deck circle." Today, a pitcher has to pitch one inning and have no more than a three-run lead.
"It's gone from three innings to one inning," Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen said. "The one-inning thing changed it a lot more than the three-inning. Those guys who got all those three-inning saves deserve a lot more credit.
"It means a lot for me. The save is very important. It's come a long way, I know that."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. MLB.com reporters contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.