The flaws of the Win statistic are so obvious that it is hard to imagine anyone taking it seriously as a good indicator of pitcher talent. So much that goes into earning a Win is outside of the pitcher’s control – his defense, his offense, the quality of the opposing pitcher that day, and how his bullpen performs after he exits the game – that it’s far better to look at other stats when evaluating a pitcher’s talent or trying to compare pitcher to pitcher for awards purposes. Even ERA, which has clear shortcomings, is far superior to the Win.
The mainstream usage of the Win continues, though, in spite of obvious evidence of its relative uselessness. There are several reasons for this. The Win is easy enough to understand and interpret. A pitcher with a lot of wins is supposedly good; a pitcher with few wins is supposedly not so good. It’s a binomial stat – you either get a win or you don’t – and there’s no average to calculate, no linear weights to compute, no long division necessary. The official scorer tells you at the end of the game who got the Win, and that’s the end of it. It’s also popular because old habits die hard, and because as children it was one of the first stats we learned, right after Home Runs and RBI. USA Today has a tiny box at the bottom of the MLB page in the Sports section listing the league leaders in Wins. When I was a kid, I would study these tables and memorize the leaders. It was a part of how I understood the game, and it’s repeated at the end of every game and on every highlight clip on Sportscenter. ”The winning pitcher was…Taking the loss was…” It’s ingrained into baseball consciousness and even has some nostalgic value to it. Discarding the Win means discarding the way you used to understand baseball. It’s a good thing to grow up, but it hurts a little.
Yet one of the main reasons, I’d imagine, that the Win hangs on and stays relevant is its name. Calling this statistic the “Win” is a branding coup because it’s hard for people to separate the idea that earning the Win statistic and causing your team to win are two different things. Indeed, you don’t have to look very far to find members of the BBWAA citing some truism like “winning is what matters” and “the object of the game is to win” or “you play to win the game” as evidence for why the guy with the most Wins should get the Cy Young. Of course, they’re conflating a pitcher putting his team in a good position to win with accumulating the statistic known as the Win, but they either don’t realize it or don’t care. The distinction between the proper noun and the active verb eludes them. Would they be so dogmatic about the importance of the Win if it was called something like the “LNB” for “Leads Not Blown”? Probably not. In this case, a rose by any other name would not be so sweet, and it certainly wouldn’t be one of the determining factors for whether a pitcher wins the Cy Young or gets into the Hall of Fame.
CC Sabathia toes the mound tonight against the Orioles with 19 Wins, or LNBs, under his giant belt this season. He’s on the cusp of accumulating 20 Wins for the first time in his career. Like it or not, 20 Wins is a big accomplishment for baseball players, and it’s hard to get to 20 wins without being a good pitcher. This is part of the reason the Win is so popular: the most convincing lies are half-truths. Most 20 game winners are very good pitchers, but this is only an incidental fact. On its own the Win won’t tell you very much at all.
Nevertheless, I’ll still root for Sabathia to rack up his 20th win on the year and not just because I hope the Yankees win today. The Win stat and the pursuit of 20 Wins is a part of our baseball consciousness. It will be interpreted as a major milestone for the big lefty, and any praise he receives as a result is well-earned. Sabathia has had another excellent year and he remains one of baseball’s elite pitchers. Despite the fact that his strikeout rate has dropped, he’s still dominating AL batters by inducing groundballs and keeping guys off-base. He’s an ace in his prime in true form, and it’s a delight to watch him pitch every five days. I’ll be happy for him when he wins his 20th game, just so long as he doesn’t win the Cy Young as a result.
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