Silly save statistic psyching out Olson

KEN ROSENTHAL

April 24, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- One by one, manager Johnny Oates summoned his relievers. He had promised "nothing earth-shattering" the night before, but now he was demoting his closer. Nothing earth-shattering? Gregg Olson was near tears.

Meetings, maneuverings, misty eyes, all because of a silly rule. Chicago Tribune columnist Jerome Holtzman invented the save with the best of intentions -- to recognize the performance of late-inning relievers. Little did he realize he was creating a statistical monster that would grow out of control.

Eddie Watt and Pete Richert never fretted over save opportunities while backing up the Orioles' starting pitchers in the late 1960s and early '70s. The save wasn't officially recognized until '69, and the closer's role didn't evolve into its present form until the mid-'70s.

Dennis Eckersley is now one of the game's biggest stars, but his remarkable success has only added to the twisted emphasis on the late-inning specialist. Closers are now obsessed with save totals, knowing big numbers lead to big money. Managers deny it, but they set up their bullpens accordingly.

It's absurd -- the statistic defines the role, instead of the other way around. When a hitter is slumping, the manager benches him. But when a closer such as Olson is slumping, the issue quickly develops into a crisis. Even a temporary demotion amounts to a major blow to his psyche.

Thus, Oates reacted only when it became absolutely necessary, installing a bullpen by committee of Todd Frohwirth, Alan Mills and rookie Brad Pennington. Next, he might be forced to attack a far greater problem -- an offense averaging a league-low 3.6 runs.

The closer becomes a secondary concern when a team can't secure late-inning leads, but even Olson conceded his abysmal start might be the reason the Orioles are 4-10 instead of 7-7. The question now is how swiftly he'll recover.

He pitched a scoreless eighth inning in last night's 7-6 loss to Kansas City, but again failed to retire the side in order, giving up a two-out single to Jose Lind. It might have been worse, had Mike Devereaux not made an over-the shoulder catch on a ball hit by Phil Hiatt to deep center.

Asked about Olson's frame of mind, Oates said: "I don't worry about it, but I do consider it. I've got to take care of the ballclub first. I will handle his psyche as best I can. But I can't keep sending him out there and losing games to protect his psyche. What about mine?"

It's a valid question, but Oates didn't pose it until his club was in serious trouble. Radio talk show callers fail to understand why the issue is so delicate, but it's one every manager must confront -- even Tony La Russa, now that Eckersley has blown three straight saves.

For the time being, Oates plans to take each situation as it comes, weighing a variety of factors before choosing his late-inning reliever. Ideally, that's the approach he'd use at all times, but if he tinkered with Olson regularly, he'd have an even worse problem on his hands.

That's why it had to come to this. Mills got the final two outs of the eighth Thursday night, and probably was the most logical choice to pitch the ninth. But Olson earns $2.3 million to protect leads. As Frohwirth said, he's the best reliever on the club.

"It's not an easy job," Oates said. "Certain guys might be the best pitcher in the world when you're one run behind, but give them a one-run lead and see what happens. Guys like [Tom] Henke, Eckersley, [Rick] Aguilera, [Duane] Ward -- they're there for a reason."

Olson still fits that category -- he earned 131 saves in his first four seasons, the most ever by a closer before his 27th birthday. But he could barely contain his emotions yesterday, even as Frohwirth predicted he'd regain his job in 10 days.

The problem isn't Olson, it's the way the game has evolved. The stat freaks rush to quantify every pitch, but they've yet to devise an accurate measure of a reliever's performance. The save doesn't cut it. A closer can throw one pitch and earn a save for protecting a three-run lead.

Yet, Eckersley got a blown save this week for failing to escape a bases-loaded, none-out jam with a one-run lead. Check that: The blown save isn't recognized as an official statistic. Starting pitchers should have it so good. Otherwise, they'd earn only wins, no losses.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are proof that the closer's role is overrated -- they've won three straight NL East titles with no pitcher earning more than 18 saves. But there were the Orioles yesterday, filing into Oates' office, closing the wrong door.

Meetings, maneuverings, misty eyes.

All because of a silly rule.

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