Dr. CliffLee or: How we Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate the Win

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.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

MLB Playoff predictions from the guy who said the Red Sox would win the World Series

Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Roy Halladay (L) and catcher Carlos Ruiz celebrate after Halladay’s no-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds in Game 1 of the MLB National League Division Series baseball playoffs in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, October 6, 2010. REUTERS/Tim Shaffer (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL IMAGES OF THE DAY)

My 2011 MLB season predictions were a little off this year.

I said the A’s would win the AL West and they actually finished 22 games out of first.

I said the White Sox would win the AL Central and they just traded their manager to another team, which sums up how well they did this year.

I said the Giants would repeat as National League champions and in doing so I cursed Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Freddy Sanchez and the 900 other players they placed on the DL this season.

I had the Braves winning the NL Wild Card and we all know how that turned out. Yiiiiiikes.

While I did have the Phillies winning the NL East and the Yankees making the postseason as the AL Wild Card, those were gimmies. My only claim to fame was predicting the Brewers to win the NL Central, although when you have the Red Sox winning the World Series and they don’t even make the postseason you have no right to brag about anything.

So if you’re offended by my postseason predictions below, don’t be. Chances are I’ll be wrong anyway.

ALDS: Yankees over Tigers.
I don’t trust the Yankees’ pitching but I trust it more than I trust Doug Fister. Justin Verlander was the best pitcher in the American League this season but he’s had a knack for coming up short on the road throughout the years. Knowing the Yankees they’ll be down in every game of this series and figure out some way to advance. Derek Jeter will be 16-for-18 with 11 doubles and one game-winning home run or something ridiculous.

NLDS: Phillies over Cardinals.
The Phillies did the Cardinals a favor by beating Atlanta but if I were them, I would have wanted the downtrodden Braves to advance. That team would have just been happy to reach the postseason after a miserable September. Nevertheless, the Phillies’ pitching will dominate the hot-and-cold St. Louis lineup and the Cardinals’ pitching will fail them in Philadelphia. They’ve got Edwin Jackson slated to start Game 2 in that bandbox the Phillies’ call a stadium, which should work out well considering he’s a fly ball pitcher. (Read: sarcasm.)

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Five teams that could come up short in 2011

Philadelphia Phillies starter Roy Halladay pitches against the Boston Red Sox during the fourth inning of a MLB spring training game at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida, March 21, 2011. REUTERS/Steve Nesius (UNITED STATES – Tags: SPORT BASEBALL)

It’s the start of a new year and you know what that means: Expectations are running high for every club not named the Pirates and Royals. (Or Astros, Cubs, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Nationals or Indians for that matter.)

But what postseason contenders are most likely to fall short of expectations in 2011? I’ve highlighted five below.

Philadelphia Phillies
When a team is hyped for an entire offseason, it almost becomes cliché to say that they’ll fall short of expectations. But in the case of the Phillies, there’s some major concern here. It’s impossible to replace Chase Utley’s production in the lineup and this is an aging roster. Yes, the Halladay/Lee/Oswalt/Hamels/Blanton combination will keep most opposing batters up at night and yes, the Phillies will probably win the NL East. But the Braves aren’t too far behind talent-wise and Philadelphia has become a club that starts off slow only to pick it up in the second half. If Atlanta comes out of the gates hot and the Phillies suffer some early-season hiccups without Utley, the Braves might be able to build a decent lead that they can ride throughout the season. Barring injury to Halladay or Lee, I can’t imagine a scenario in which the Phillies don’t make the playoffs this year. But without Utley, the playing field has definitely been leveled in the National League.

San Francisco Giants
This is an easy one. It’s been 10-straight years since the last time any team was able to repeat as World Series champions. And while the G-Men aren’t considered the favorites to win this year’s Fall Classic (that would be the Phillies or Red Sox), many pundits believe that, at the very least, they’ll win the NL West again. A World Series hangover is the Giants’ biggest concern, because this club is better now than it was a year ago. They’ll get a full year out of Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner, the energetic Andres Torres will serve as the leadoff hitter from Day 1 (instead of the highly unproductive Aaron Rowand), Pablo Sandoval looks like he’s ready for a big bounce back campaign, top prospect Brandon Belt might start the year with the big league club after dominating this spring, and Mark DeRosa, Mike Fontenot and Pat Burrell strengthen the bench. But it’s a different game for the Giants now. They’re going to be the hunted instead of the hunters, at least in the NL West. Can this fun-loving team recapture the same magic it had in September and October last year? Or will all of those extra innings that Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez endured in the postseason last year eventually catch up with this team?

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Phillies or Giants: Which rotation would you rather have if you were starting a new organization?

Philadelphia Phillies all-star pitcher Roy Oswalt delivers a pitch during first inning San Francisco Giants-Philadelphia Phillies NLCS Championship game two at Citizens Bank Park October 17, 2010. . UPI/John Anderson

So you’re the general manager of the new Las Vegas Craps team and baseball commissioner Bud Selig comes to you with the offer of all offers.

He says, since the Craps are going to struggle this year offensively with a lineup comprised of over-the-hill veterans and unproven rookies, you get your pick of stealing either the Phillies or the Giants’ starting rotation.

“Sweet mother of all that is holy,” you say to Selig. “Those are the best starting rotations in the game!”

“Yes they are, Craps owner,” Selig says. “But you have to choose one right now.”

So which rotation would you rather have? Let’s take a look at the deets first.

Philadelphia Phillies

Roy Halladay
Age: 33
Salary: $20 million in 2011; $20 million in 2012; $20 million in 2013; $20 million option in 2014.
Career Stats: 169-86, 1,714 Ks, 3.32 ERA, 58 complete games, 19 shutouts
Accolades: Two-time Cy Young winner, two-time wins champion, seven-time All-Star.

Cliff Lee
Age: 32
Salary: $11 million 2011; $21.5 million in 2012; $25 million from 2013-2015.
Career Stats: 102-61, 3.85 ERA, 1,085 Ks
Accolades: Cy Young winner, two-time All-Star, 7-2 postseason record, 2.13 postseason ERA.

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2010 Year-End Sports Review: What We Learned

Years from now, when people look back on 2010, what will they remember as the defining sports moment? Uh, they can only pick one? We discovered that Tiger Woods likes to play the field and that Brett Favre doesn’t mind sending pictures of his anatomy to hot sideline reporters via text message. We found out that LeBron listens to his friends a little too much and that Ben Roethlisberger needed a serious lesson in humility. But we also learned that athletes such as Michael Vick and Josh Hamilton haven’t blown second chance opportunities (or third and fourth chances in the case of Hamilton). It was also nice to see a certain pitcher turn down bigger money so that he can play in a city that he loves.

We’ve done our best to recap the year’s biggest sports stories, staying true to tradition by breaking our Year End Sports Review into three sections: What We Learned, What We Already Knew, and What We Think Might Happen. Up first are the things we learned in 2010, a list that’s littered with scandal, beasts, a Decision and yes, even a little Jenn Sterger.

Contributors: Anthony Stalter, John Paulsen, Paul Costanzo, Drew Ellis and Mike Farley

Tiger Woods gets around.

We hesitate to put this under “golf” because the only clubs involved were his wife’s nine-iron hitting the window of his SUV and the various establishments where Tiger wined and dined all of his mistresses…over a dozen in all. This was the biggest story of the early part of the year, but it got to the point that whenever a new alleged mistress came forward, the general public was like, “Yeah, we get it. Tiger screwed around on his wife. A lot.” He has spent the rest of the year attempting to rebuild his once-squeaky clean image, but it’s safe to say, we’ll never look at Tiger the same way.

Golfer Tiger Woods apologizes for irresponsible and selfish behavior during his first public statement to a small gathering of reporters and friends at the headquarters of the U.S. PGA Tour in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida,on February 19, 2010.   UPI/Sam Greenwood/Pool Photo via Newscom

LeBron wilts when his team needs him most.

Say the words “LeBron” and “Game 5” in the same sentence and NBA fans everywhere know exactly what you’re talking about. In the biggest game of the season, LeBron looked disinterested, going 3-of-14 from the field en route to a 120-88 blowout at home at the hands of the Celtics. There were rumors swirling about a possible relationship between LeBron’s mom and his teammate, Delonte West, and there’s speculation that LeBron got that news before tipoff and that’s why he played so poorly. Regardless of the cause, LeBron played awful in that game, and it turned out to be his swan song in Cleveland as a member of the Cavaliers. Talk about leaving a bitter taste.

You can auction off your talented son’s athletic abilities and get away with it.

The NCAA set a strange precedent this season while dealing with the Newton family. The always inconsistent and completely morally uncorrupt NCAA decided in its infinite wisdom that despite discovering that Cecil Newton shopped his son Cam to Mississippi State for $180,000, and that is a violation of NCAA rules, that Cam would still be eligible because it couldn’t be proven that he knew about it. Conference commissioners and athletic directors around the country spoke out about the decision, while agent-wannabes and greedy fathers everywhere had a light bulb go off in their own heads: As long as we say the player doesn’t know about it, it could go off without a hitch. What was Cecil’s punishment in this whole thing? Limited access to Auburn for the last two games of the season. Easy with that hammer there, NCAA. Read the rest of this entry »

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