On Thursday afternoon, Génesis Cabrera entered with his Cardinals up 8-0 for some mop up work. When he threw his first pitch to open the seventh inning, the Cardinals had a 99.8 percent win expectancy. The outcome of the game wasn’t dependent on what Cabrera did, but Cabrera pitched well and ultimately closed the book on the Giants. Cabrera, who St. Louis received in the Tommy Pham trade, had spent the last two months in Triple-A and returned when the rosters expanded. Cardinals manager Mike Shildt figured this was the perfect, low-leverage situation for a promising hurler to build some confidence and to save the rest of his bullpen.
The official scorer saw Cabrera’s outing a little differently. In their eyes, Cabrera was a shining force locking things down and preserving the win. Without him, who knows what kind of comeback the Giants could have staged? Cabrera was awarded a save for a game in which he racked up 0.003 win probability added and the average leverage index for the 12 batters he faced was 0.02.
Saying that Cabrera saved this game is like claiming you saved your coworker’s lives because you didn’t burn down the office when you were heating up your lunch. Sure, there was very small chance for catastrophe, but it would have taken a series of enormous screwups to get there.
Still, it’s within the official scorer’s right to award a save in this situation. According to rule 9.19 of the MLB rulebook, a pitcher is eligible for a save if they satisfy the following criteria:
(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
The rule used to state that a pitcher had to pitch effectively for three innings to be credited with a save, so that created room for discretion in whether to award one. Under that criteria, Cabrera would still be awarded with a save, but this third requirement sets a low bar. The save doesn’t have much value as a stat in normal circumstances, but handing out a save for throwing the final three innings can be downright farcical.
Earlier this year, Zack Godley of the Arizona Diamondbacks was awarded a save after coming into an 18-2 blowout and pitching the final three innings. According to Baseball Reference, Godley entered the game with a 100 percent chance of victory, and yet he was awarded a save for not precipitating the greatest comeback in sports history.
As the rule is currently written, Godley could have given up 15 runs in those three innings and still been granted the save. Also, if Godley had gotten one out and given up 12 runs, whoever came in to relieve him wouldn’t have been eligible for the save because protecting a four-run lead over 2 2/3 innings somehow doesn’t count.
Somehow, Godley’s 16-run lead was not the biggest lead that a reliever was credited with saving. In 1999, Stan Belinda saved a game his Phillies eventually won 22-3 though when he entered the game, he had just a modest 11-run lead. Just last season, Jake Thompson of the Phillies saved a game that his team won 20-1. He was tasked with protecting an 18-run lead, and as far as I can tell, that’s the largest lead a pitcher has been credited with a save for protecting, at least at the time of his entrance.
The largest final lead ever “saved” came in a 30-3 massacre in 2007. Wes Littleton of the Rangers pitched the last three innings to earn one of his three career saves. In an article from the New York Times, Littleton was quoted as saying his father told him, “[he would] be a trivia question five or six years down the road.” 12 years later, his record still stands.
As an analytical metric, the save isn’t very telling, but the loophole within the rule makes for some fun and dumb games where a player gets rewarded for not screwing up in the most catastrophic way possible. For that alone, they’re worth recording.
Kenny Kelly is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and McCovey Chronicles. You can follow him on Twitter @KennyKellyWords.