- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Trevor Hoffman became the all-time saves leader Sunday, but that doesn’t mean he’s the best reliever of all time.

The save statistic is in its 38th season, a relative infancy.

When Babe Ruth began obliterating home run records in the 1920s, baseball had a hard time figuring that out, too.

Here’s how the save has evolved:

• The save era (1969-78): The save, created by sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, became an official statistic in 1969 and was amended in 1973 and 1975.

Relief aces were used a lot — in save situations, in tie games, two innings at a time, every other day, whenever their manager needed them.

When Mike Marshall won the Cy Young Award in 1974, he pitched 2081/3 innings in 106 games. He was 15-12 with a 2.42 ERA and 21 saves.

Marshall defined the era, pitching more than 100 innings for five consecutive seasons. He and others were overworked.

The best reliever of this era was Goose Gossage.

Rollie Fingers, who is in the Hall of Fame, had great taste in teammates, but he wasn’t particularly impressive. His ERA was about a run less than the league average, which was about average for a reliever of that era.

• The save situation era (1979-87): Managers looked for ways to limit the use of their relief aces, so they began using them in only save situations — only at the end of games with a lead.

Cubs manager Herman Franks, when managing Bruce Sutter, popularized this way of handling relievers.

When Sutter won the Cy Young Award in 1979, he pitched 1011/3 innings in 62 games. He was 6-6 with a 2.22 ERA and 37 saves.

The best relievers of this era were Gossage, Sutter and Dan Quisenberry.

• The one-inning save era (1988-present): In 1987, Athletics manager Tony LaRussa convinced washed-up starter Dennis Eckersley to be a relief ace.

The next season, LaRussa began using Eckersley almost exclusively in ninth-inning save situations.

This is how “closers” have been used ever since.

When Eckersley won the Cy Young Award and MVP awards in 1992, he pitched 80 innings in 69 games. He was 7-1 with a 1.91 ERA and 51 saves.

The best relievers of this era are Eckersley, Hoffman and Mariano Rivera.

Modern closers pitch fewer innings but more often, so saves have become more common.

That’s a big reason why Hoffman broke the saves record and why Rivera might pass him in a few seasons.

A save is not a save is not a save. It depends on the era and how relievers were used.

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