King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The save is a dumb stat, but let's not shortchange Eric Gagne. Plus: Why doesn't anybody worry about Maria Sharapova's schooling like they worry about Maurice Clarett's?


Salon Staff
July 7, 2004 11:00PM (UTC)

ESPN's "SportsCenter" asked viewers Tuesday night to compare Dodgers reliever Eric Gagne's consecutive save streak, which ended Monday, to the historic streaks of Cal Ripken Jr., Joe DiMaggio and Orel Hershiser. Gagne got smoked.

Only 6 percent of the 200,000-plus viewers who voted thought Gagne's 84 save chances without a blown one was a greater feat than Ripken's 2,632 consecutive games played, DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Hershiser's 59-inning shutout streak, which finished ahead of Gagne in that order.

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I was heartened by that result because I think it showed baseball fans have really come to appreciate how bogus a stat the save is. Saves are the single most meaningless stat that anyone pays attention to in the major American sports. I'm not counting silly invented stats that nobody cares about, but I am counting hockey assists.

I think the days are finally gone when a lousy reliever with a sky-high ERA and a big bunch of saves is thought of as a terrific pitcher by the average fan.

But folks, come on. The pendulum has swung a bit too far. Forget the saves: This guy has been really good. I won't bore you with numbers, because they're all over the Net anyway and I don't like to mar the beauty of my elegant prose with them, but jumpin' monkey boogers, if I did show them to you, you'd snort coffee through your nose. Gagne's been that good with the game on the line.

As Jayson Stark of ESPN.com points out, the Elias Sports Bureau has a stat called quality saves, which is an imperfect but better measure of when a reliever really saves a game, since it looks only at games in which the tying run was in scoring position when the reliever came in or he protected a one-run lead for an inning or more. Gagne has led everybody in that stat during the streak, by a lot.

There has to be plenty of luck involved in any long streak. Just as one example, a more nimble first baseman than Olmedo Saenz might have fielded the base hit Monday that let the tying run score for Arizona and ended the save streak. There are any number of ways a guy can blow a save despite pitching beautifully. Errors, bloops, passed balls, seeing-eye grounders. In the same way, you need a few cheap hits or friendly scorer's calls to keep a hitting streak alive.

And it should tell you something that the guy whose record Gagne broke was Tom "Flash" Gordon. At times in his long career, including now, he's been a pretty good pitcher, but he isn't exactly one of the all-time titans.

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But the old record was 54, and Gagne beat that by more then half again. Even an almost totally meaningless stat begins to mean something if you pile up enough of it. There are a lot of guys who do what Gagne does, and no one has come close to 84 straight. Does that mean Gagne is the greatest reliever of all time? Or even that he's the greatest reliever in the game today? No more than Hershiser's shutout streak made him the greatest starting pitcher of all time or his own era.

Over the last two years, which constitutes most of the length of the streak, John Smoltz and Billy Wagner have put up overall numbers comparable to Gagne's. They've both blown a few saves, but in most other ways a relief pitcher can be measured, they're in Gagne's league.

For my money, Hershiser's shutout innings streak is the greatest of the four ESPN asked about. Ripken's was remarkable, but all he had to do to keep it alive was show up, not perform. DiMaggio's has never been approached, but a hitter can strike out four times and beat out an infield bleeder to keep a hitting streak active.

A starting pitcher putting up zero after zero is probably getting an assist from the fates here and there, but he has to be consistently good to keep that streak going and, unlike a reliever such as Gagne, he has to get the same guys out three or four times in one game, a very different thing from facing a handful of batters in a night's work.

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Gagne loses a little luster for me because he's a former mediocre starter. He tried for two years to do that job where you have to get hitters out more than once a game and he mostly failed. He's found his niche as a reliever and good for him. He's better than most at it, maybe better than all, but he's a specialist. He can't do Roger Clemens' job, to pick a name out of the air, but I think it's fair to say that Clemens could do Gagne's job.

But for all that, 84 saves without a blown save is a wonder. In the words of Marlins reliever Billy Koch, describing Gagne's stuff, "It's Bugs Bunny." The save streak was fluky and mostly meaningless, sure, but let's not forget that a 56-game hitting streak is kind of fluky and meaningless too, and nobody seems to have much trouble treating that with the proper degree of reverence.

I'm with Yankees manager Joe Torre, who knows a thing or two about a thing or two. "I know not everybody believes in the save rule," he said, "but a two-year period is just crazy."

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Maria Sharapova, scourge of college tennis! [PERMALINK]

Just wondering: Have you read or heard a single word in the media about Wimbledon champion Maria Sharapova that wasn't about how she's a breath of fresh air and a sign of great things to come for women's tennis?

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Sky News said that her Wimbledon win made her "one of the most bankable stars of the sports world" and quoted a sports marketing expert gushing, "It is not at all unrealistic to expect this girl to earn 100 million-plus pounds. She could become a global icon. Everyone will want to know what she likes and how she lives. She could become one of the few sports people to transcend their sport."

"Tennis got a big boost from a new face at Wimbledon," the Boston Globe said. The San Francisco Chronicle hailed a revival: "Wasn't women's tennis dead just two weeks ago?" The Times of London headlined, "Mind-boggling Maria just a baby but a true champion."

Sharapova is 17 years old and has been playing professional tennis since she was 14. Her official bio on the Women's Tennis Association Web site says she enjoys reading Pippi Longstocking books.

How come when the subject is football or basketball all I ever hear about is how teenagers should be kept out of the pro leagues for the good of the teenagers, the pro leagues, the American higher education system and society in general, but when it comes to tennis players, not to mention actors and singers, 17-year-old champions and millionaires are feel-good stories?

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Why are so many people so exercised about Maurice Clarett leaving college early, and about so many high school hoopsters heading straight to the NBA, but nobody cares about Maria Sharapova's college education? Why is an 18-year-old too young to play professional basketball or football but a 17-year-old, never mind a 14-year-old, is not too young to play professional tennis, an international, individual sport where there are no home games and no older teammates to show you the ropes?

I don't know the answer to these questions. Perhaps Jennifer Capriati has an idea. But sometimes I think maybe the sanctity of a college education isn't really the main issue when various parties complain about teenagers hitting the NBA and NFL. You think?

Previous column: The NBA and crime

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