The year was 1989: In a 26-team universe, 25 men logged 20 Saves or more, goosing the year-old record by more than one-third, and topping the total of all individuals with a 20-Save season through 1964. Another mark was set as 10 reached the once-historic 30-Save plateau.

And lefties were in the vanguard of the closer revolution, setting southpaw records with seven 20-Save years and four of 30+. They nailed down the year’s highest total (with bonus hardware), along with nos. 3 and 5. One team even boasted two southpaws with more than a dozen Saves, a truly unique occurrence.

But time marches on. The big question now is … Will any lefty reach 20 Saves in 2013?

 

With Aroldis Chapman slated for starting, Minnesota’s Glen Perkins is the only southpaw among the 30 projected closers. Perkins took that role last June when RH Matt Capps got hurt, and joined Chapman as the only lefties among the 37 pitchers with 10+ Saves last year. Lefties tossed 30% of MLB innings, so a normal share would have been 9 of the 30 closer jobs.

The number of lefties scoring even 10+ Saves has shriveled to three in the past two years combined.

How did we get here?

Damned if I know. But I sure am rooting for Glen Perkins. Maybe it’s because of my Tigers fandom; their two best firemen in my lifetime were southpaws. Maybe it’s the rigid situational roles throughout the game that make a body hunger for a little more variety somewhere on that spectrum.

The dearth of southpaw closers is a recent development. Lefties were deep in the mix throughout the evolution of the relief ace, including the first generations of closers. From 1962 through 2010, at least three lefties notched 10+ Saves, with an average of six per year. At least one lefty had 20+ Saves from 1983-2010, with an average of three per year.

More historical notes on lefty relievers:

  • From 1901-1984, lefties posted 30% of all 3-WAR relief seasons, although just 27% of all pitchers in that span were southpaws.
  • Lefties own three of the 10 Cy Young and/or MVP Awards copped by a reliever (counting doubles just once).
  • Their 53 seasons of 30+ Saves include record-setting years by John Hiller and Dave Righetti. A southpaw held or shared the season record for 30 of the past 64 years.
  • Numbers 4, 5 and 9 on the career Saves list are southpaws.
  • Lefties logged 36% of all World Series Saves through 1990 (16 of 27 in WS finales), including the only pitcher to work all seven games of a Series.
  • Two-thirds of the Nasty Boys tilted leftward. And there’s only one Wild Thing, one Mad Hungarian, one LaLob, one Tippy, one Tugger, and one Fat Tub of Goo. (Unless we count this guy.)

But all that feels so very long ago, no? Over the last 20 years, the percentage of saves claimed by lefties has settled into an all-time low:

Pct Saves by LH

 

A sea change: “Hard to starboard!”

As you see, from 1962 through 1993, lefties logged at least 20% of all Saves in every year but one. But since ’94, they’ve never topped 18%. They were under 10% in 2000 for the first time ever, and set new lows in 2004 and 2011.

From 1916-95, the 3-year average never dipped below 17% except in WWII. The 9% average for 2010-12 is the lowest ever.

Ten-year averages for the last half-century:

  • 1963-1972, 26%
  • 1973-1982, 29%
  • 1983-1992, 26%
  • 1993-2002, 15%
  • 2003-2012, 12%

Since 1991, lefties have just 5 of 60 World Series Saves (one of those from a starter), and none of the 13 Series-ending Saves.

A splintered leader board

In 1994, there were seven active lefties with 100 career Saves, and three with 200. But when Brian Fuentes retired last fall, the leadership fell to a couple of guys whose career total is less than the season record:

1994 – Active Leaders in LH Saves   2012 – Active Leaders in LH Saves
Rk Player SV Years G IP   Rk Player SV Years G IP
1 John Franco 266 1984-94 613 770 1 Mike Gonzalez 56 2003-12 434 394
2 Dave Righetti 252 1979-94 708 1354 2 George Sherrill 56 2004-12 442 324
3 Randy Myers 205 1985-94 486 654 3 C.J. Wilson 52 2005-12 359 910
4 Mitch Williams 192 1986-94 592 674 4 Aroldis Chapman 39 2010-12 137 135
5 Dan Plesac 134 1986-94 476 642 5 Jeremy Affeldt 28 2002-12 621 802
6 Jesse Orosco 130 1979-94 754 972 6 Scott Downs 26 2000-12 496 670
7 Craig Lefferts 101 1983-94 696 1146 7 Matt Thornton 23 2004-12 546 525
8 Mark Davis 96 1980-94 605 1129 8 J.P. Howell 21 2005-12 267 403
9 Steve Howe 88 1980-94 416 540 9 Glen Perkins 18 2006-12 215 435
10 Mike Stanton 54 1989-94 278 270 10 Sean Marshall 16 2006-12 365 591

Neither Gonzalez nor Sherrill had a Save last year. No. 3 C.J. Wilson hasn’t relieved in three years. Chapman, no. 4, had one Save before last year. No. 5 Affeldt has 10 Saves in the last three years. The top 10 active lefties have 335 career Saves combined — just six more than Francisco Cordero.

Whew.

All platoon proportions go through cycles, fueled by fads and fancies and the abnormal distribution of talent. Could this be just a random down cycle for lefty closers? Not so long ago (2005), four of the 19 with 30+ saves were southpaws, and three of them repeated in 2008. But as they faded, just two new ones emerged: Sherrill, sort of an accidental appointee in 2008, and Chapman, now reassigned.

It seems more than a cycle. In 20 years, most personnel would have turned over two or three times. And after all, a managerial preference for righty closers is openly acknowledged within the industry. But just to be sure, we’ll check the bigger picture of lefty pitchers (not just closers), when this series moves to the middle innings.

*END OF PART 1*

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