Something I saw in the last couple of days got me thinking about the absurdity known as the save rule. If I remember correctly (and I'm much too lazy to go look it up, even knowing that it's on MLB's website), the save rule states, essentially, that a reliever earns a save by entering the game with a lead, and getting the batter, the man on deck, or the person batting behind the man on deck to be in a position to tie the game. Oh, and finishing the game (if they don't, but leave with the lead, they'll just get a hold (which might just be an even more useless stat)).
While there is some logic to this rule, it results in all sorts of ridiculous situations. For instance, a Rangers reliever got a save a few years ago in a 30-3 victory (over the O's, IIRC).
Anyway, my point is that the rule does a terrible job of what it is supposed to do (identify the critical reliever, I think). What makes that truly pernicious, though, is that most current managers let that rule dictate their bullpen usage. That is, they refuse to bring in their 'closer' unless it is a save situation.
In games tied in the ninth inning or later, especially when on the road, this frequently means that your best reliever stays on the bench, because no save situation will arise.
To take a step back, I'm not a big fan of the stats WPA/LI. My biggest problems with them are two-fold. The first is that it has little or no predictive value. It'll tell you who did the best job in critical situations over the prior season, but gives little or no insight into who will do so over the next season. My other problem is this (and hopefully I can explain it so that it makes sense).
A home run in the first inning is just as valuable to winning a game as a homer in the ninth inning. But if you take them both out of context, and just say that the homer in the first inning only adds, say, 10% to your team's chance of winning, while the same homer in the eighth or ninth might add sixty or seventy percent. And while I can't exactly argue with this analysis, I think that it is missing one critical element.
That is, look at a specific game. If a batter comes up in the ninth inning, and hits a homer, we say that the chance of winning the game rose by, say, fifty percent. And if he had hit that homer in the first, it would have raised the chance by a tiny percentage. But I think the better comparison would have been, if that batter had hit that homer in the first, what would the difference be on winning percentage for that critical at-bat in the ninth.
I'm not sure, maybe what I'm saying is bupkis.
But to get back to my original point, I wonder if a better "save rule" (assuming that we actually need one) would be based on, for instance, the highest WPA (or average LI, maybe) among relievers. We don't really need to specify entering and leaving with a lead in this formulation, as entering with one and leaving without will certainly put one at the bottom of the pile by virtue of what it means.
And this would certainly put us on the track of recognizing the most successful relievers. It would also put managers back on the track of doing what they should be doing in trying to win a game. That is, they wouldn't be managing to a rule, because they wouldn't have the WPA/LI calculations handy, most likely. But it would also get out of this rut of 'this guy pitches the eighth' and 'this guy owns the ninth' (as a side note, 'Mac the Ninth' was about the coolest nickname ever for a reliever).
And then when you say that a reliever has 500 saves, you know it really means something. (Just to be clear, this was not all meant as a back-handed slap at Mariano Rivera; he's earned a higher percentage of his saves than most, as far as I can tell.)