Despite last year's 57 saves, Thigpen gets no respect

July 31, 1991|By Larry Whiteside | Larry Whiteside,The Boston Globe

BOSTON -- Why doesn't the world care more about Bobby Thigpen? For a stopper whose 57 saves last year is a major-league record, it is a honest-to-goodness puzzlement.

Well, the truth is that the Chicago White Sox right-hander is a victim of changing attitudes about saves and statistical overkill that has become a new kind of measuring stick for relievers. Nowadays, he rates as only a second-class citizen in a world that by definition should be reserved for very special people.

The numbers he compiled in 1990 might have been just too staggering for the average fan to digest. Not only did Thigpen break the magical 50-save barrier, but he set the record in just 65 chances.

Chicago won 94 games in 1990 and finished second in the American League West to Oakland, albeit by nine games. If Thigpen (4-6, 1.83 ERA in 88 innings) wasn't the major reason why, what else could it be? He had a hand in 64.9 percent of the team's victories.

"I can't imagine a relief pitcher being more important to a club," said Chicago manager Jeff Torborg. "His 57 saves represent more than numbers to me. They were absolutely necessary.

"Whenever somebody is successful, there is always someone who would criticize or put him down. In this case, people would say there had to be cheap saves or we were just going for a record. We weren't going for any record. We were going to win games. The same thing is true this year."

Saves are defined by official scoring rule 10.20, which has changed over the years. Given birth in 1952 by Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune, it became an official statistic in 1969. Originally, a reliever had to come into the game with the winning or tying run on base to qualify for a save. But changes were made in 1969, 1973 and 1975, and the requirements have been relaxed.

Ten years ago, Thigpen's total of 57 saves would have been unthinkable because the 40-save plateau hadn't even been reached.

Eight other pitchers have compiled 40 or more saves since 1983, but Thigpen stands alone over 50. Oakland's Dennis Eckersley had 48 last year, which also topped Dave Righetti's former record of 46. The others to break 40 are Dan Quisenberry (45, 44), Bruce Sutter (45), Mark Davis (44), Doug Jones (43), Jeff Reardon (42, 41) and Steve Bedrosian (40). Eckersley also had a 45-save season. Rollie Fingers, the career save leader, never had more than 37.

In addition to his sheer numbers, Thigpen's efficiency was staggering. In 77 appearances (not even close to the major-league record of 106 by Mike Marshall in 1974), 65 of which were save opportunities, he had only eight blown saves -- an efficiency mark of 87.7 percent.

Thigpen warmed up for last year's performance with 34 saves in each of 1988 and 1989. But he is still largely considered an underrated newcomer. Reardon made headlines recently when he became only the fourth man to reach the 300-save career level. Thigpen is almost taken for granted.

"Last year, the closer I got to the record, the media made a big fuss about it," Thigpen said. "But once I did got the record and went beyond, it was like. . . . OK.

"It's true that there wasn't big a deal made about it. A lot of people -- the so-called experts in the game -- think that saves are an overrated stat now. But they aren't. Every team in baseball is building their staff around the last guy they have in the game.

"It really doesn't matter. I'm still having fun."

Though far off his record pace, Thigpen is having a good season, with 23 saves to go with a 7-3 record and 3.42 ERA through Monday.

"Nobody's perfect," he said. "You can't set goals. You just take the ball and try to do the best you can every time. The only thing you can do is capitalize on opportunities. Cut down on blown saves. The thing I enjoyed most about last year is that I got into so many games and that we won that many games. We had a winning season and I had fun."

Torborg feels close to Thigpen, possibly because Thigpen reminds Torborg of the days when he and White Sox pitching coach Sammy Ellis were with the New York Yankees and helped Righetti make the conversion from starter to stopper. They share some common traits, said Torborg.

"To be a short reliever," Torborg said, "you've got to have a special attitude, a special toughness. Bobby reminds me a lot of Righetti. They're both tough, but not nasty tough. They're strong tough.

The success of Thigpen is almost symbolic of what the White Sox did all last season and continue to do. They're an aggressive team of opportunity -- poised in second place again, only three games back of Minnesota.

"We overcame obstacles," Torborg said. "This was and can be again a ball club that responds to challenges. (Thigpen) is our horse. He's the guy we have to turn to."

And as for save records?

"I don't know if anybody can get 57 saves again," Thigpen said.

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