It’s 2012, in case you hadn’t heard, and by now I’d think most baseball fans are well aware that a pitcher’s win-loss record is worthless. It’s simply not a reliable way of charting performance. Wins, like RBI, are a function of opportunity, not ability. We know that, on the forefront of our consciousness. But then why does R.A. Dickey’s record of 11-1 give me such a sense of smug satisfaction? And why is Cliff Lee’s 0-4 line troubling Phillies’ fans, and more importantly, the pitcher himself?
Well, because behind the facade, our perception of baseball, like so many things, is rarely guided by the parts that help make us calm, rational, or logical. That much was made perfectly clear over the weekend when Bill Baer, who writes for ESPN and runs the Phillies blog Crashburn Alley, began re-tweeting some “phan” responses to Lee’s most recent performance. You don’t need to scroll through to figure out the message, most involved the pitcher’s name and a certain four-letter word, so I’ll give you one swear-free highlight: @GutterTheGreat said, “I think the man love for Cliff Lee needs to end – don’t give me this run support shit or about the poor fielding.”
Baer, being of sound mind, gave him something a little more in-depth. On Monday, he published an analysis of Lee’s performance, arguing that the pitcher’s woes have not all been of his own design. Baer gets plenty specific and sabermetric, but it’s simple enough to know that when a pitcher goes 10 innings without giving up a run, as Lee did on April 18, he should have at least one win. The article led to a retort from ESPN’s David Schoenfield entitled “Maybe Cliff Lee hasn’t been all that good,” I’ll wager you can figure out what that one was about on your own.
Baer’s piece began with a response to another, more collected tweet. User @alexrolfe said, “what’s weird to me is that the no wins makes people reevaluate lee instead of reevaluating wins. why is that?” You’ll get all the coverage you need on Lee specifically from Baer and Schoenfield, so here’s where I’m going with all this: Indeed, random internet person, why is that?
Let’s start by considering what a win is. MLB official rule 10.17 defines the winning pitcher as one “whose team assumes a lead while such pitcher is in the game, or during the inning on offense in which such pitcher is removed from the game, and does not relinquish such lead.” Of course, the rule is different for starters. In a game that goes the full nine innings, a starter has to pitch at least five to get a win.
You know you’ve got a silly statistic when it’s perfectly reasonable (number-wise) that Jon Rauch can have three wins and Lee none. Yet fans, players, and front offices still give the win-loss record a tremendous amount of undeserved influence. Even if every fan thought the way Bill Baer does, you better believe Cliff Lee would still be pissed off about his lack of a win. If concentrating on getting one is a good way for Cliff to self-motivate, so be it. But it shouldn’t go any farther than that.
There a million different stats and sabermetrics out there, but the Cy Young Award is given to the “best pitcher” in each league. It’s one of the game’s few simplicities. Want the Cy Young? Be the best. That’s it.
In 2004, Roger Clemens won the NL Cy Young because of his 2.98 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 218 strikeouts in 214.1 innings pitched. He was the best. Supposedly. We’re sane, we know that wins are entirely out of a pitcher’s control. Clemens was the best so he won the honor, right? In any other year perhaps, but not 2004. That was the year, Ben Sheets‘ line looked like this: 2.70 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 264 strikeouts and just 32 walks in 237 innings pitched. Along with his 8:1 strikeout to walk ratio, the league’s best by a mile, Sheets outpitched Clemens based on every major pitching stat. He was in fact, though not in name, the best. So what gives?
Well, he outpitched Clemens in every major pitching stat but one, and I think you know which. Sheets had a record of 12-14, while Clemens was 18-4. Yet Sheets’ Brewers went 67-94 that year, while Clemens and the Astros brought home a record of 92-70. Given that, any sane person might consider Sheets’ 12 wins on that miserable squad to be the more impressive count. But the trophy sits on Clemens’ shelf, along with his other six Cy Youngs, and, I imagine, the cream and the clear. Try and tell me wins didn’t influence the voting, or that the best pitcher won.
We like to think we’re living in a more civilized time. Everyone loves to point out that Felix Hernandez brought home the AL Cy Young in 2010 despite a 13-12 record. But 2004 wasn’t all that long ago, and the rabbit hole goes far deeper than awards.
You all know how I feel about closers, and “saves.” Well, I was wrong when I wrote that piece. Don’t worry, the notion of a closer is still ridiculous, but I shouldn’t have said “a save situation is the only time a manager makes a decision based on arbitrary numerals rather than what’s going to help his team win.” Wins will do that too. Imagine this scenario: your team’s up 8-2, the starter’s on the mound with two outs in the fifth when he suddenly gives up four runs that were inarguably his fault, and there are still a couple men on base. Any other pitcher gives up four runs in an inning and he’s getting the hook. But nine times out of ten your manager will leave him in there for a while longer, hoping he can get that third out and be in line for a win. Suddenly, the pitcher getting a win is more important than the team getting one.
Better offense, pitch counts, specialized relievers, and a thousand other changes have all contributed to the ever increasing worthlessness of the win-loss record. But the stat still affects contracts, awards, All-Star selections, fan opinion, and sometimes even a pitcher’s self-worth. It’s 2012, yet there are still those among us who give wins the respect they were due in 1912. To those people, listen closely: wins are a relic of a different era, whether or not it was a better era is entirely subjective, but the present can only be right now. And right now, wins and losses should not be anywhere but the periphery of statistical analysis.