Detroit Tigers closer Francisco Rodriguez has reached another milestone in his excellent career, notching his 400th save last night.
It was a breezy 71 degrees in Detroit as Francisco Rodriguez began his all-too-familiar trot out from the bullpen Tuesday night. The Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera had just grounded out to Freddy Galvis to end the 8th inning, and manager Brad Ausmus turned the 3-0 game over to his reliable closer. Rodriguez had made this trip 877 times prior, easily the active leader in games pitched and 33rd all-time. If there were ever nerves, they are long gone.
This time, his duty was to mop up the last three outs and secure victory for teammate Justin Verlander. The longtime Detroit Tigers ace had pitched an outstanding game, allowing just three hits while striking out ten. The Phillies had been stymied all night by the power right-hander, and would welcome a chance to hit against anyone else, even one of the best closers of all time.
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Rodriguez would allow a lead-off hit to Freddy Galvis on the first pitch; a double down the line in right. The throw back in got away from the cut-off man, and Rodriguez was there to back it up. The 34-year old has seen everything in his 15 year career, and there was still no panic in his game. He knew that Galvis meant nothing in a 3-0 game, so turned his attention to the rest.
After another hit to Mikail Franco, this time on a weak ground ball through the left side, Rodriguez would retire the next three batters to finish the game 3-1. It was the 620th game he’d seen to completion, and the 400th save of his career. He’d become just the 6th player of all-time to record 400 saves, split between the Angels, Mets, Brewers and Tigers (he never recorded a save during his short stint as an Oriole).
“K-Rod” as he’s affectionately known, is an interesting case among closers. He’s not really a failed starter like Mariano Rivera or Joe Nathan, nor a 2-pitch master like Billy Wagner or Craig Kimbrel. He never started a game after his 20th birthday (or above A ball), and mixes in four quality pitches regularly. He came up in September of 2002 as a 20-year old, and showed his electric ability right away, striking out 13 in his first 5.2 innings including current St. Louis Cardinals hitting coach John Mabry in his debut.
His first save didn’t come until April 11th, 2003 when he would go two-innings to secure the victory despite giving up a two-run home run to Terrance Long. In 2005 he would be installed as the full-time closer, and never looked back. Rodriguez posted four straight seasons of 40+ saves, including the magical 62 save 2008, still by far the record for a single season. He earned both Cy Young and MVP votes that season, finishing 3rd and 6th respectively. He even earned a first place vote for the Most Valuable Player, joining only a handful of relievers to ever do so.
What’s even more amazing for Rodriguez is that he leads in so many categories despite being only 34 years old, and losing his closer’s role for a few years while in Milwaukee. In 2012, he was very ineffective, pitching to a 4.38 ERA and only collecting three saves. He has come back strong the last few years though, putting up seasons of 44 and 38 saves the last two, and already recording his 14th of 2016 on Tuesday night.
While the save has lost a lot of meaning over the past few years as the baseball world learns more about leverage and the impact fielding has on pitching, think back to the last time your favourite team blew a save and just remember how much it hurt. Now think of the 400 times that K-Rod let his fans go home happy, and realize the true value of that number.