Forgive Nate Silver if he was distracted last year by a certain presidential election. It is part of his job to follow such events, and the most recent one presented more challenges than most for prognosticators.
But once that was over, the editor-in-chief of ESPN’s “FiveThirtyEight” got back to a two-year-old project addressing another quintessential American activity: complaining about the “save” statistic in Major League Baseball.
Unlike the election, which he merely sought to analyze, in this case he has offered a solution. He calls it the “goose egg,” a nod to one of its inspirations, former Yankees relief pitcher Rich “Goose” Gossage.
“It’s one of these things where as a fan it frustrates me and as a statistician it frustrates me both,” Silver said. “I think the way closers are used does not make for great baseball.”
What makes the save so insidious is that not only is it a flawed statistic misused by fans and journalists, but it drives managerial decisions.
“You don’t want to manage to a statistic,” Silver said, “but if you’re going to do that because of human nature, then having a statistic where it kind of encourages more correct behavior would be worthwhile.”
Enter the goose egg.
In essence, the idea is to build on Gossage’s (correct) complaint that 21st century relievers are not used to maximum effect by being restricted mostly to ninth-inning “save” situations, even if their team is ahead by three runs.
It’s silly, really, and mostly serves to pad statistics and massage egos. By contrast, one earns a “goose egg” for, as the story describes it, “a clutch scoreless relief inning” when it is the seventh inning or later and the game is tied or the pitcher’s team leads by no more than two runs. (So yes, a pitcher could earn more than one goose egg per game.)
There are provisions for dealing with inherited runners, as well as “broken eggs,” a new version of a blown save.
For a complete, highly detailed explanation, see FiveThirtyEight.com.
Silver calculated goose eggs for every game since 1930, and lo and behold, Gossage was the career leader with 677 — with a single-season high of 82 in 1975 — followed by Rollie Fingers (663), Hoyt Wilhelm (641) and Mariano Rivera (614).
Gossage ranks only 23rd in career saves at 310, less than half the total of Rivera’s record 652.
Relievers from before 1990 or so, when multiple-inning appearances were common, have a big advantage in those career numbers. But Silver’s statistic works in addressing the values of a variety of modern-day relief specialists.
For example: The 2016 co-leader in goose eggs with 42 was the Mets’ Jeurys Familia, a traditional closer who had 51 saves. But Andrew Miller of the Yankees and Indians, who had only 12 saves, tied Familia with 42 goose eggs.
The Orioles’ Zach Britton, who had 47 saves, ranked third in goose eggs with 40. The Mets’ Addison Reed, who had only one save, was fourth with 39.
Silver urges managers to use relievers for more innings and in more varied situations, such as the way the Indians used Miller in the 2016 postseason, and as teams often do come playoff time.
“When you look at how many two-inning saves there are, or how many times Mo Rivera came in in tie games, in the postseason teams are suddenly much more creative,” he said. “When they have more on the line, they start to use their bullpens correctly.
“So the idea is that this is one of those things that I can see shifting over the next five or 10 years . . . This is kind of back to the past. The way they were doing it 30 years ago was probably better.”
These things take time, such as football coaches gradually coming around to the fact that they should go for it on fourth down far more often than they do.
“Baseball is supposedly the more quote-unquote advanced sport, where people are supposed to be all ‘Moneyball’-savvy,” Silver said. “To me this is just as big an error, really, when you look at how much more valuable a 1970s-style closer was.
“Again, we’re not talking about every team having one. We’re talking about, if you are lucky enough to have a pitcher like an Andrew Miller, why not try and get 100 innings out of him, or if you’re not going to get 100 innings, at least make sure those 80 innings you get really are higher-leverage innings and not with a three- or four-run lead in the ninth.”
He added, “I think a first step is, the eighth inning is almost as valuable as the ninth, sometimes more valuable.”
Still, it’s complicated. Pride and sometimes financial incentives are at stake.
The irony is not lost on Silver that he finds himself aligned with Gossage, who signed with the Yankees two months before Silver was born 39 years ago and who mostly is known these days as a get-off-my-lawn throwback.
“He goes on lots of diatribes about things, and he’s totally correct on this point,” Silver said. “He’s right for the right reasons. I’m sure there’s some ego there in terms of comparing himself to modern closers, but he’s right. Managers are not helping their teams as much as they could with the way they’re using their bullpens.”
Baseball’s top closers, according to Nate Silver’s Goose Egg system:
1. Rich Gossage663310 (23)
2. Rollie Fingers641341 (13)
3. Hoyt Wilhelm641228 (39)
4. Mariano Rivera 614652 (1)
5. Lee Smith589478 (3)
6. John Franco 589424 (5)
7. Trevor Hoffman580601 (2)
8. Bruce Sutter557300 (tied, 26)
9. Tug McGraw521180 (63)
10. Sparky Lyle 520238 (37)
Jeff Reardon 520367 (10)