If I could choose to eliminate one statistic from all of baseball, I’d choose a pitcher’s wins total gleefully. There may be other popular statistics that are also misleading, such as RBI or runs, but no statistic is as egregious an offender, no statistic is leaned upon so heavily for misinformation, as a pitcher’s number of wins.
Most statistically minded baseball fans object to using wins to evaluate pitchers for the same reason. Simply put, a high win-loss record is not highly correlated with pitching performance. The best example is Felix Hernandez in 2010. Last year King Felix had an ERA of 2.27 and a FIP of 3.12, but a won-loss record of 14-13. He had a lousy record because he pitched for the 2010 Mariners, an abysmal offensive team. Had he pitched for the Yankees he would have gone 24-3, and there would be no controversy surrounding his Cy Young candidacy.
Despite the litany of examples demonstrating that wins, more than any other stat, are heavily team dependent, have as much to do with the offense as the defense, and frequently punish good pitching performances or reward bad pitching performances, they come up again and again in the media as a means of evaluating a pitcher.
This week provided a perfect example. On Wednesday night CC Sabathia was pitching with a chance to win his 20th game of the season. As frustrating as it is that CC felt pressure to add another accolade to a season in which he’s pitched 237.1 innings of 3.00 ERA, 2.87 FIP baseball, the outcome of the game inadvertently served as a damning reminder of how dumb wins are for pitchers.
CC wasn’t dominant in the game, but he was the man on the mound for the Yankees. He recorded 22 of the team’s 27 outs. He threw 127 of the team’s 146 pitches. He held the Rays to just two runs and seven hits over 7.1 innings. While CC has been better, the Rays’ offense has been better as well. Had he allowed even one more run, he would have still given the Yankees an excellent chance to win the game, but he would have left with the team trailing. Instead, he threw an incredible number of pitches, and battled.
Of course David Robertson picked up the win. Think about that, in a game in which Sabathia converted 81.5% of the Yankees’ outs and threw 87% of their pitches, a different pitcher was credited with the win. That’s crazy as it is, but Robertson threw just a single pitch. Of the three pitchers the Yankees used that night he contributed far and away the least, but this crazy statistic rewarded him.
In Robertson’s defense, he did pull CC’s fat out of the fire. He came into a tie game with the bases loaded and only one out and quickly induced an inning ending double play. That he threw only one pitch was a function of luck more than anything else. Ben Zobrist bit on the offering, and we’re grateful to him for that. But even had Robertson struck out the next two batters in dramatic fashion, his contribution to the team victory, although important, would have been a fraction of Sabathia’s. Any statistic that can reward a one-inning pitcher over a guy who went seven-plus innings is bad enough, but those short comings are brought into stark relief when a player can be rewarded for only throwing a single pitch.
There are few stats in all of sports that make as little sense as the pitcher’s win. Even in baseball’s halcyon days of yore when pitchers were expected throw 197 pitches on three days rest after a night of boozing and gambling the win didn’t make any sense because there are no ties in baseball. No matter what happens the offense must play a role in determining the victory. In today’s game, with specialists, one inning guys, improved relievers and the like, measuring wins for pitchers makes no sense at all. Anyone who still believes in this measure need only look at the results from Wednesday night’s contest to understand why.
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