Every now and again here, you might have noticed, I will throw a few body blows at the bloated concept of “pitcher wins.” But — and I don’t know if I’ve ever made this clear — I would not want pitcher wins to go away. For one thing, they are fun to argue about. It amazes and entertains me to no end the logical maze people will take to argue that pitchers can win games more-or-less singlehandedly. The Mighty Win people certainly understand that pitchers don’t strike out the majority of hitters they face. They obviously know that different ballparks have different configurations. They can’t help but realize that pitchers cannot win games unless the offense scores at least one run, usually four or five or more.*
*Justin Verlander is pitching amazing baseball this year. The Tigers have still scored five or more runs in 13 of his 21 wins. The Tigers have scored four runs in another five of his wins.
They also must understand that in today’s world starting pitchers almost never pitch all nine innings, and rarely pitch eight. Up to the moment, there have been 1,477 games where a starting pitcher won in 2011, and the average inning total is actually fewer than 7 (it’s about 6 2/3 innings). It breaks down like so (and fractions are included — so 8 innings also include 81/3 and 8/23 innings):
Complete game: 7.2%
Eight innings: 13.1%
Seven innings: 33.0%
Six innings: 33.4%
Five innings: 13.3%
So you can see that a winning starting pitcher is almost twice as likely to pitched fewer than six innings as throw a complete game. How absurd is it to say that a pitcher who threw 5 1/3 innings WON a game? Not too absurd, apparently. We say it all the time.
But, today, I come today to praise the win not to bury it. Because in addition to the pitcher win being fun to argue about, it also connects us to the game’s history — which I think is a good thing. Bill James was probably the most outspoken critic of the whole “error” concept in baseball. It irritated him to no end that baseball, which as a game is set up for such a clean statistical record, would allow fielders to be judged and catalogued by how they looked from the press box rather than how many plays they actually made. But Bill has also told me that he would not want to get rid of errors because they such are a part of baseball. That’s how I feel about the win too. I like referring to Steve Carlton as a 27-game winner in 1972. It’s a common language in a time when common language is becoming rarer.
I certainly think wins have SOME correlation with a pitcher’s ability or performance. Not nearly as much as The Mighty Win people want, but good performances obviously tend to lead to wins more often than bad performances. Winning 300 games in a career is a remarkable thing, and winning 20 games in a season is an accomplishment. There have been 72 20-win seasons since 1990, and all of them were good seasons. Some were a lot better than others. Randy Johnson’s 20-win season in 1997 was a whole lot better than Bill Gullickson’s 20-win season in 1991.
Still … John Updike once challenged Ted Williams critics (who said that he was only interested in individual numbers) by saying that for Ted Williams to organize his hits so that they wouldn’t help anyone but himself would “consult a feat of placement unparalleled in the annals of selfishness.” Well for a pitcher to be lousy AND win 20 games — especially in the age of five-man rotations and active bullpens — would be a magic trick worthy of a big room in Vegas.
So, no, I don’t want to get rid of wins. I don’t even want to stop referring to them. What I want, what I wish, is that people would look at wins as what they are: A kind of quirky little statistic that doesn’t tell us much but also doesn’t NEED to tell us much. Wins are INTERESTING. That’s why they’re worth looking at.
Hey, you know what wins are like to me? I just thought of this, so the analogy might not work but I’m going with it: Maybe pitcher wins are like how much a money a movie grosses worldwide. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 has grossed more than a billion dollars. That’s interesting. A conversation starter. Does that prove it’s a great movie? A good movie? Did it earn that much money because the acting was great, because the writing was sublime, because the direction and editing was brilliant, because the special effects and lighting and sound were remarkable, because it was a gutsy movie that competed every step of the way? Maybe. It’s also possible that it grossed that much because the Harry Potter franchise — from the books to the movies to the theme park to everything — is so awesome. It’s possible that it has made that much money for a lot of reasons that have nothing to do at all with the specific quality of the movie.
Personally, I didn’t like this Harry Potter. I’m not saying I’m right or wrong — I thought it deviated from the book too much and I thought it butchered my favorite scene in the entire Harry Potter book series. But that’s beside the point. If you tell me Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II is better than, say, The Godfather or Annie Hall or The Terminator because it made a lot more money, well, I would throw the flag and penalize you 15 yards for Misleading Logic. Sure I want to know how much money a movie grossed because I think it’s interesting. Just don’t try to make it mean more than it means.
And that’s how how I feel about pitcher wins too. Take Yankees rookie Ivan Nova. You might know: He is 15-4 this year. That IS interesting. You can just stop right there. Everybody understood that the Yankees came into this season with exactly one starter they could count on — the venerable C.C. — and they had to hope against hope that something else worked out. Maybe A.J. Burnett would regain form. Maybe Phil Hughes would pitch like he did at the start of 2010. Maybe Ivan Nova would develop or — and this seemed too much to hope for — Freddy Garcia or Bartolo Colon would find a bit of past glory.
Well, a couple of these things did not happen — A.J. Burnett’s collapse has been particularly painful for Yankees fans –but some did. Nova has pitched quite well, especially in the last month or so. And Yankees fans should celebrate that. We all know that fans view the world through their own team’s prism, and if you’re a Yankees fan then having Ivan Nova pitch well in 2011 has been a very important part of the Yankees excellent season. And so to say, “Hey, look, Ivan Nova is 15-4!” seems to me a good and fun fan reaction.
But, beyond that, what does that 15-4 record actually mean? What does it really tell us? Well, let’s compare him with a guy with a terrible won-loss record — say, Kansas City’s Jeff Francis. At the moment, Francis is 5-15, almost the inverse of Nova’s, and his .250 winning percentage is the worst in the American League.
So, clearly you can take from those won-loss records that Nova is having a better year than Francis. But how much better? A whole lot better? Three times better? Infinitely better?
Well … Francis has actually thrown one more quality start than Nova this year, 15-14. Trouble is, in Francis’ quality starts his record is 5-5. Nova in his quality starts is 11-1. So, immediately you ask: Are Nova’s quality starts of a higher quality than Francis’? Well, his ERA in those 14 quality starts is 2.40 to Francis’ 2.52. But they both average 6 2/3 innings in those quality starts, their walks and hits per inning are almost identical and Francis has the better strikeout-to-walk. Point is they when they are throwing quality starts they are not THAT different. But Nova is 11-1. Francis is 5-5.
You might, at this point, make some reference to quality of the teams they happen to play for.
Of course, it gets more stark at this point. Nova’s record when not not throwing a quality start is 4-2 (one of his losses came in relief). And Francis’ record when not throwing a quality start? Yep: He’s 0-10. He lost again Sunday giving up four runs in five innings. Nova has won a game this year when he gave up seven runs in 5 1/3 innings.
This is not to say that if you traded Jeff Francis for Ivan Nova that their won-loss records would just flip. The world is much more complicated than that. But this is exactly the point: The world IS complicated, and people for so many years have wanted to simplify it by saying “Pitcher win game. Pitcher have heart. Pitcher good pitcher.” People have attached all sorts of mystical qualities of competitive spirit to pitchers with good won-loss records rather than appreciate that the record probably means a whole lot of things — hey, maybe the pitcher DOES indeed have a great competitive spirit, maybe his competitive juices spark him to pitch to the score, maybe … maybe … maybe. And also, you know, maybe the team he’s on plays good defense behind him and scores a lot of runs when he’s pitching. Maybe it’s all of it combined.
The patron saint of wins, I have come to believe over the last few months, is not Jack Morris* as I always assumed. No: It’s Steve Carlton. It seems to me that whenever anyone makes the point that pitchers do not win games singlehandedly, the Mighty Win people point to Carlton and 1972 when he won 27 games and his astonishingly dreadful Phillies won 59. The Phillies finished 11th in the league in runs scored that year and they made quite a few errors and so Carlton must have won those games more or less on his own. This is the line: “Oh yeah, what about Carlton in ’72?”
*Here are the Top 10 pitchers since 1950 in wins when they allowed four or more runs:
1. Jack Morris, 54
2. Robin Roberts, 47
3. Roger Clemens, 46
4. Steve Carlton, 45
(tie) Jim Kaat, 45
(tie) Phil Niekro, 45
7. Jamie Moyer, 44
(tie) Fergie Jenkins, 44
9. Warren Spahn, 43
10. Randy Johnson, 41
But even in Carlton’s extreme 1972 case … it isn’t quite so simple. Yes, that year Carlton did win 1-0 twice that year …. but in 1972 so did Andy Messersmith and Bill Stoneman and Dave McNally and Dick Tidrow and Don Sutton and Jon Matlack and Nolan Ryan and Pat Dobson and Roger Nelson and Rudy May and Wilbur Wood.
Carlton’s record when his team scored two runs was 7-2. That’s pretty amazing. But that same year, Gaylord Perry also won seven games when his team scored two for him.
Even with all that, the Phillies still scored three or more in 18 of Carlton’s 27 wins and four or more runs in 14 of 27 wins, this in a time when the league ERA was 3.45. Best I can tell, only once all year did an unearned run cost Carlton a victory (he gave up an unearned run in New York and lost 2-1). The Phillies also drew him a no-decision twice when he wasn’t very good at all (but probably cost him three or four more wins by not scoring enough runs).
Point is, even in 1972, even in one of the most extreme examples in baseball history, Steve Carlton did not win games by himself or anything close.
I said that I came to praise wins. I really do think they are an interesting and fun part of baseball, as long as you don’t try to read too much into them. And by “too much,” I guess what I really mean is: “anything.”