On Friday night, the Kansas City Royals’ closer, Greg Holland, broke a 3-way tie to set a new all time team mark for saves in a season with his 46th save. He added to his new record with a 47th save in the season finale Sunday against the Chicago White Sox.
Holland broke the record he temporarily held with two Royals’ Hall of Famers. Dan Quisenberry first set the mark for 45 saves 30 years ago in 1983. Jeff Montgomery matched the record 10 years later, in 1993. What is so interesting about this particular record was how differently each closer went about establishing their mark. The Royals’ save record is a snapshot of how the closer position has evolved over time in baseball.
In 1983, Quisenberry saved 45 games in 53 chances. His most crazy stat from that season was that he saved 45 games while throwing 139 innings. To put that in perspective, only 57 pitchers threw that many innings in the American League this season, all of whom started at least 20 games except Garrett Richards, who started 17. Bruce Chen started 15 games and still only worked 121 innings.
Quisenberry appeared in 69 games that season, just one more than Holland did this year, though Holland pitched in just 67 innings – 72 less than Quiz. Quiz pitched 3 or more innings 19 times that season, including one game in which he allowed 2 runs in 5.1 innings!
Quiz struck out only 48 that year but walked just 11 in his 139 innings. Eleven!!! He finished 1983 with a 1.94 ERA and a .928 WHIP, and spent all of two days all season with his ERA 2.00 or higher.
From 1980 through 1985, Quisenberry saved 212 games and led the American League every season, minus the strike shortened 1981 season. In those 5 plus years, Quiz threw an amazing 724.2 innings. In those seasons, excluding 1981, the fewest innings he worked was 128.1. In those seasons, his ERA was 2.45 and his WHIP was 1.087.
By any standards, that is an incredible 6-year stretch for any reliever, in any era.
In 1993, Jeff Montgomery also appeared in 69 games and saved 45 games. He pitched 87.1 innings that season. It was the 5th season in a 5-year stretch where Monty threw at least 82 innings. From 1989 to 1993, Montgomery saved 159 games (averaged 32 a season), and went 446.1 innings, an average of 89 innings a season.
In the year he set the record, he struck out 66 in his 87.1 frames, and walked just 23. He finished with a 2.27 ERA and 1.008 WHIP in 1993.
From 1989 through 1993, Montgomery accumulated an impressive 2.22 ERA (better than Quisenberry’s big six seasons), and an excellent 1.105 WHIP.
Montgomery pitched six more seasons, racked up 144 more saves, but never pitched more than 66 innings, and never recorded an ERA under 3.40 the rest of his career. Still, Monty had a terrific career and an outstanding, dominating 5-season stretch.
Times have changed for closers. The role has evolved into a one inning appearance. Holland appeared in 68 games and pitched just 67 innings. Holland’s 2013 numbers are just about as good as they get for a modern day closer. He saved 47 games in 50 chances. His ERA was a phenomenal 1.21 and his WHIP was .866. Holland struck out an amazing 103 batters in those 67 innings to just 18 walks. His Strikeouts Per 9 Innings 13.8 on the year.
The key to whether Holland can be compared to Quisenberry and Montgomery is how he holds up over time. Holland’s predecessor, Joakim Soria, was as good as they came over a 4-year period. From 2007 through 2010, Soria saved 132 games for the Royals, producing an ERA of 2.01 and a WHIP of .988 in 255 innings (average of 64 innings a season). He struck out 281 in those years.
In 2011, Soria still saved 28 games but his ERA soared to over 4.03. He ended up missing the entire 2012 season with Tommy John surgery. He was signed this off season with the Texas Rangers and pitched 23.1 innings with a 3.86. No one knows if he will ever recover his previous effectiveness.
The point is that it is very hard for closers to duplicate their best seasons, or even come close over a stretch of several years. In this day and age, despite throwing many less innings than the closers in the 1980’s, and even the 1990’s, closers just aren’t as durable. The 67 innings Greg Holland has thrown in each of the last two seasons is a far cry from the 130 innings a year Dan Quisenberry threw in his heyday, or even the 90 innings a year Jeff Montgomery hurled in his prime. In theory, closers should have longer, more stable careers, but modern closers throw much harder.
Quisenberry averaged 3.1 K/9 in his top seasons, Montgomery 8.1. Those numbers are a far cry from the strikeouts Holland has compiled. His K/9 sits at 13.0 over the past two seasons. Soria, in his best 4 seasons, was 9.9 K/9. In the case of the Royals’ top closers, Holland and Soria threw much harder and struck out a lot more batters. Soria’s arm has already given out. How will Holland’s hold up?
Some believe teams should sell high on the closers. History will reflect if this is true with Holland as it was with Soria. Regardless of what happens, Holland’s 2013 stands up in comparison to the Royals’ pitchers whom record he broke. Each reached the record in much different ways, but each had memorable years, and even extended stretches of years in which they dominated in their era. Hopefully, Greg Holland can dominate in his way, in his era, for several years as the Royals’ closer.