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.

For Your Consideration: Baseball’s MVP Candidates

Albert PujolsI am confident that both Dustin Pedroia and Albert Pujols had the best all-around years in their respective leagues. Based on their individual performances in the batter’s box and on the field, and considering how they contributed to their teams’ playoff chances, they each deserve to be MVP.

The voting process takes place the Friday before the regular season ends. As a result, even though guys like Derek Jeter and David Ortiz come through with jaw-dropping numbers in the post season, these figures won’t matter to the Baseball Writer’s Association of America—their minds have already been made up.

It’s the regular season that matters. Sports writers use various methods when deciding who gets their vote. Whether their basis is purely statistical or how the player individually affected his team, most can agree on one criterion: The team must have a good record. So, despite having superb seasons, Josh Hamilton and Lance Berkman probably won’t win the award. However, you could make a case for each as to why they should win, and this raises an interesting topic concerning the semantics of “Most Valuable Player.”

Much has been written about how the word “value” isn’t properly defined. Does “value” simply figure into hitting? What about defense? Or attitude in the clubhouse? All affect the performance of a team. You can already see how convoluted the decision-making process can get. Nevertheless, most baseball fans eschew statistical reasoning and data analysis, instead depending on gut instinct. In looking at the winners from the recent past, I believe the writers do as well. With this in mind, a clearly defined rule emerges: How would the team fare without the player in question?

There’s no doubt that a Texas Rangers team without Josh Hamilton would have finished with a worse record. The same goes for Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, Justin Morneau, Carlos Quentin, etc., and their respective teams. You can see where I’m going with this. Each team has a keystone player whose absence would greatly hurt their team’s record. Unfortunately, this is why it’s hard to decide who is more valuable. Ryan Howard leads the National League in homeruns and RBIs but is only decent defensively at first base. Albert Pujols’ hitting has also been tremendous; on top of that, he’ll probably win another gold glove. Both the Phillies and the Cardinals would have had drastically different seasons without these players.

But would the Cardinals have fared worse without Pujols? Or the Phillies without Howard? In my opinion, Pujols, with his combination of hitting and fielding, is more of an asset that Howard. Obviously, much of this is based on conjecture—speculating how games and standings would turn out if a certain player wasn’t involved.

This is why critics have called the MVP candidacy of CC Sabathia, Manny Ramirez, and Francisco Rodriguez “preposterous” and “embarrassing.” I don’t look at it that way. Nobody expected Sabathia and Ramirez to perform they way they have after getting traded. Same goes for Rodriguez surpassing the all-time single-season saves record. Baseball is the only professional sport which gives out separate MVP awards in both leagues (including numerous other accolades). Therein lies the problem—a problem I find intriguing rather than irritating.

Francisco Rodriguez will not win the MVP, but he will be close.

Only three relief pitches have ever won the MVP (Dennis Eckersley was the last to win it in 1992). The Anaheim Angeles are a very similar team to the ’92 Athletics. Rodriguez has already tallied more saves than Eckersley (breaking Bobby Thigpen’s record of 57 in the process). Shouldn’t Rodriguez then win as well? It’s hard to say. To quote Tom Singer of MLB.com:

The Angels have won 55 games by one or two runs; K-Rod has saved 47 of them, and picked up the victory in two others. No one else in the league, obviously, has directly affected as many team wins. By definition, no one else has been as valuable.

He makes a valid point, but I just don’t see it happening. History has shown the voting to be extremely prejudiced against pitchers. Of course, there is the Cy Young Award which recognizes their accomplishments. However, there’s also the batting title, gold gloves, and the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year Award. Rodriguez is definitely the most valuable player on the Angels. Still, I think the Red Sox would be worse for the wear without Pedroia.

CC Sabathia. You just can’t.

Chew on this: No player has won an MVP Award in a season in which he was traded. After leaving Cleveland for the Cubs, Rick Sutcliffe still managed to win the Cy Young, going 16-1 with his new team. Sabathia will have played in about 12 games with the Brewers. Even though he has helped Milwaukee’s playoff hopes, his time there produces too small a sample to even predict what might have happened. Also, his overall record, which includes his starts with the Indians, does not stand up to Brandon Webb’s of the Diamondbacks.

Manny Ramirez is the National League MVP.

No way. Not this year, and not next year since I don’t see him resigning with the Dodgers (or any NL team). Given a full year with Los Angeles, he would have won, hands down. He’s singlehandedly turned the Dodgers into a playoff team and I believe that merits the MVP votes he will garner. It just wouldn’t be right to give Ramirez the award after playing in only 52 games (maybe something else, like a bulky contract, will suffice). He’s played above average in left field and he’s hitting better than anyone in the league. What’s most important, however, is that he makes his teammates happier and more productive. Without Ramirez, the Dodgers might have fallen behind the Rockies in their division. His arrival has brought a sea change to their organization. This alone should qualify Ramirez for the MVP. Still, as with Sabathia, this sample is just too inconclusive. We’ve seen what Pujols can do in a full year on one team, and in one league.

Perhaps the Most Valuable Player Award should change its name to the Best Position Player Award. That way, both pitchers and the hitters have their own accolade. Until “value” becomes easier to define, and doesn’t steer conversations into “what if” territories, then we should welcome the preposterous and the embarrassing. It’s fun to flirt with the idea of a closer or a late arrival receiving the coveted honor, but the discussion is for the birds. When it’s all said and done, traditional thought will prevail.

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