One hundred and twenty two games into the season, Edwin Díaz stands on the precipice of history.
Only four players in history have ever recorded 55 saves in a single season: John Smoltz, Éric Gagné, Bobby Thigpen, and Francisco Rodriguez. Neither Mariano Rivera nor Trevor Hoffman, the two all-time leaders in saves, ever hit 55. Dennis Eckersley topped out at 51.
Díaz, meanwhile, has 47 saves as of right now, in mid-August. If he continues at his current pace, he will finish with 62 saves, which would tie Rodriguez’s all-time record set back in 2008.
What are his chances of finishing the job and tying or setting the record? Well, they aren’t all that high, but they’re certainly helped by his utter dominance and the Mariners’ penchant for one-run victories.
In 2008, Rodriguez was certainly a standout reliever, with a 2.24 ERA and 10.14 K/9. But in virtually every way, his stats pale in comparison to Díaz’s:
Sugar & K-Rod, Compared
Edwin has been simply dominant this season. His K/9 would place him 11th all-time among relievers in a single season with at least 50 IP, narrowly surpassing...2016 Edwin Díaz. His K-BB% is good for 6th all-time, behind only a handful of the most elite relievers (unsurprisingly, given the rising strikeout totals in the last few years, all are names you’d recognize). Were he to keep up his current pace, his fWAR would land him in the top 15 all-time seasons by a reliever, and that’s with fewer innings pitched than any of those names above him. It’s that exact dominance that should help him replicate his success the rest of the way and keep his shot at the saves record alive.
But setting the all-time saves record is as much a product of opportunity as it is skill. Not only do you need to pitch a lot at the end of games, you need to come in when your team has a lead of between one and three runs. Rodriguez, you’ll note, had an astonishing 69 chances for a save in ‘08, and his team won 100 games. When Bobby Thigpen saved 57 games back in 1990, he had 65 chances to get a save for his 94-win White Sox.
Given that you’re reading this piece on Lookout Landing, you’re likely a Mariners fan, so you probably know where I’m going with this. The Mariners have been charmed this year, piling up close games left and right en route to a massive 11-game differential between their record (70-52) and their Pythagorean expected record (59-63). Playing close games has been part of their ethos all season long, and there’s no reason to expect that to change.
Díaz, for his part, has been expected to shut down more close games than any other reliever in history. He’s already tied the record of 24 one-run saves set by Eric Gagne back in 2003, and I’d bet he grabs at least a few more in the days to come, if not the next month-plus. Scott Servais’ reluctance to use Díaz in non-save situations should also help Díaz’s pursuit of history.
It’s widely accepted in 2018 that saves are not the best statistic to measure a reliever’s worth. But that doesn’t mean that they’re meaningless, and until the baseball world starts celebrating records like “best K/9 for a reliever with at least 50 innings pitched,” they’ll be the best commonly-used metric for closers.
Sugar has a chance to do something special in these last 40 games. Here’s hoping he gets it done.