Imagine that the guy who led the league in home runs accomplished that in 502 at bats, easily surpassing his competition who only had 350 opportunities at the plate, or the guy who led the league in wins with 32 starts, and the runner-up had but 24.
Sounds unfair, doesn’t it. But every year we gush over the latest guy to lead the league in saves, blithely ignoring the fact that usually he’s one of only a handful of relievers with a realistic opportunity to lead the league in saves.
Our latest phenom is Francisco Rodriguez. He recently passed Bobby Thigpen’s single-season record of 57 saves, and I suppose he could wind up with 60 should the Angels find the appropriate spot to use him in a pennant race that was over before Labor Day. Oooh, I am all a tingle. I think I got me the vapors.
So how many other guys had a realistic shot at leading the American League in saves this year? The next guy behind him has 38, playing for the Kansas City A’s, er, Royals, for pete’s sake. That team has only got 67 total wins, as opposed to the Angels’ 92. Think he had a chance to challenge Rodriguez to anything other than a duel this season?
Don’t confuse this continual harping about saves with a misunderstanding over the value of having some flame thrower waddle out to the mound for the ninth inning. I get it.
What I also get is that statistic doesn’t work well in aggregating a player’s season or career contribution, since it is so dependent on the efforts of 24 other individuals. That's probably the biggest reason that the various groups who vote on Hall of Fame selection have trouble deciding much of anything about relief pitchers. And our hobby is equally ambivalent. I can buy the card pictured on this page for about 40 cents. That wouldn't even cover the postage costs to mail it.
Batting champions have come from crappy teams, home run champions have come from crappy teams, even starting pitchers have occasionally led the league in wins from crappy teams (see Steve Carlton circa 1972). But to lead the league in saves your team has to – broadly speaking – be leading going into the ninth inning.
Try earning a save if your team goes on an 11-game losing streak.