Credit a pitcher with a save when he meets all three of the following conditions:
(1) He is the finishing pitcher in a game won by his club; and
(2) He is not the winning pitcher; and
(3) He qualifies under one of the following conditions:
- (a) He enters the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitches for at least one inning; or
- (b) He enters the game, regardless of the count, with the potential tying run either on base, or at bat, or on deck (that is, the potential tying run is either already on base or is one of the first two batsmen he faces; or
- (c) He pitches effectively for at least three innings. No more than one save may be credited in each game.
Subsection (c) is obviously what earned Littleton his save. He pitched three innings effectively, shutting out the Orioles over that span. My guess is that if he gave up five runs each inning -- which he could have and still technically held the lead -- the official scorer wouldn't have awarded him the save. That said, Littleton's save shows just how divorced from the notion of actually "saving" a game the save rule is.
Lawyers often say that hard cases make bad law, so the Texas-Baltimore example probably shouldn't be the basis for changing the save rule. But consider this scenario:
1. The Yankees are tied 1-1 with the Red Sox in the seventh inning one Saturday night late in September. Boston loads the bases with no one out, and Torre brings in Joba Chamberlain. Joba proceeds to strikeout Youkilis, Ortiz, and Ramierz in order, getting out of the jam.
2. Two innings later, the Yankees score three and bring Mariano Rivera to pitch the ninth in a 4-1 game. Rivera retires three of the four hitters he faces, and the Yankees win.
Who has truly "saved" this game? According to the rule, Rivera, because he finished a game his club won, having entered with no more than a three run lead. To suggest, however, that Rivera was the key relief pitcher that night is silly, yet we award him with the stat -- the save -- which folks have come to regard as the most important one for relievers.
If made commissioner for a day, one of my first moves would be to scrap the current rule in favor of a simpler one that, while subjective, would attempt to award the guy who really put out the fire, whether that fire was doused in the ninth inning or the sixth inning, and whether his team had the lead at the time or not. We could tweak the language for a bit, but basically, I'd ask the official scorer to make a judgment call as to which relief pitcher for the winning team, who came in at a time when the score was tied or when the lead for either team was less than three runs, contributed most to his team winning the game. I'd even be open to the possibility of awarding more than one save in a game if the situation dictated it because, hey, games are often "saved" on more than one occasion.
Doing this would award Joba Chamberlain with the save in the above hypothetical, because he truly did save the game. It would also take away the cheap ninth inning, three run lead save which artificially inflates the value of so many "closers" these days. Finally, it would encourage managers to use their best pitchers in the tightest spots rather than save them for the ninth inning when, all too often, the outcome is already more or less decided.
Getting out of jams and dousing rallies is the whole point of a bullpen, so why not make that the key inquiry when deciding to award a relief pitcher's performance?
UPDATE: David Pinto at BP (subscription requred) beat me to it, and it's a proposal well worth reading.