Lose the ‘Win’ Stat in Baseball

| by Sports Nickel
Yesterday I posted some thoughts on the 2010 A.L. Cy Young Award race. Though I attempted to be crystal clear about the weaknesses of the “win” statistic, I must not have been quite convincing enough. When it comes to assessing pitchers’ performance, some readers still insist on clinging to “wins” as an evaluation tool.

Consider this part II of my efforts to quash that line of reasoning.

I’ll start by reiterating a critical point from the Cy Young piece:  A team’s wins and the “win” statistic are not the same thing. A team victory is crucial to baseball success– that’s a basic and obvious truth. Teams play to win, and to some degree, winning is all that matters in the end. 

But “wins”, the statistic doled out to pitchers, are a different matter entirely. Allow me to make some indisputable points that prove why. 

Point 1:  The “win” stat is not reflective of the quality of a pitcher’s performance.

Knowing that a starting pitcher got a “win” tells us one thing and one thing only– that he pitched at least 5 innings.  That’s it.  It tells us nothing about how well he did on the mound. A guy could have the worst game of his career and still earn a win. Conversely, he could throw a perfect game and not get the win.

The win stat, in and of itself, is completely unrelated to quality. Last season in the American League, 11 pitchers had 15 or more “wins”. But their ERAs ranged from an impressive 2.16 to a below average 4.60. The 4.60 belonged to Joe Saunders, who tied for third in the league with 16 “wins”. 

If ERA is a measure of how well a pitcher does on the hill, shouldn’t it have a stronger relationship with what we’re dubbing “wins”? In 2009, the correlation between the 2 stats for all starting pitching with at least 10 starts was -.52. Those of you who know statistics will see immediately that it’s rather weak. For those who don’t, a simple translation is that there isn’t a very strong relationship between being a good pitcher (in terms of allowing earned runs) and being a “winning” pitcher.

For example, “wins” have a far stronger relationship with innings pitched (.88). 

According to the MLB Rulebook, a “winning” pitcher is:

The pitcher whose team assumes a lead A) while such pitcher is in the game or B) during the inning on offense in which such pitcher is removed from the game, and does not relinquish such lead

There are, of course, other qualifiers. A starter must pitch at least 5 innings if the length of the game is 6 innings or more. A reliever must pitch ”effectively in helping his team maintain its lead.”

But that is as close as the rule book gets to commenting on the quality of the pitching performance. There is no requirement as to how good a pitcher must be to earn the win.

In short, the “win” stat reflects little more than who was one the mound when one offense took a permanent lead over the other.

Point 2: The “win” stat is often awarded to pitchers who had no involvement with the late or final innings.

In the typical course of events, a team wins the game in the ninth inning. That is when the normal game ends.  Of course, there are extra-inning games and weather-shortened games, but the basic contest is 9 innings worth of baseball.

Typically, the pitcher who gets the “win” had nothing whatsoever to do with the end of the game. How can we can consider this to be a legitimate stat when the player to whom its awarded wasn’t even playing when the game became final? 

As an example, look at Scott Feldman’s 2009 season. The Rangers’ hurler tied for the second most wins in the A.L. despite averaging only 5.9 innings per start. 

Awarding a “win” to a guy who left after 6 innings implies that nothing that happened in the seventh through ninth had any impact. Not even the staunchest supporter of the “win” stat can defend this practice.

If an outfielder makes a game-saving catch in the bottom of the ninth, he doesn’t get a “win”. If a team wins 1-0 courtesy of an infielder’s home run, that hitter doesn’t get a “win”. Yet in those examples, the players were far more directly responsible for the score than are most pitchers.

By its very nature, the “win” stat is arbitrary.  It has no inherent meaning.

Point 3:  This is the big one now, so pay attention.  In the American League, a pitcher literally cannot win the game.

I can’t be any more direct.  I hope this is sinking in. It is impossible for an American League pitcher to win the game for his team.  Follow this syllogism:

  • In order for a team to win, it has to score at least 1 run. 
  • Runs can only be scored by players who are batting.
  • In the A.L., pitchers do not bat.
  • Therefore, A.L. pitchers cannot win games.

Pitchers can put their teams in position to win. They can preserve leads. They can limit the other team’s runs.  But they themselves can’t win a game. Yet we measure their performances with a statistic that we call “wins”.

I’d be hard pressed to think of anything that makes less sense than that.

The “win” stat could be called any number of more appropriate names. Relievers who preserve a lead are given a “hold”. Closers who preserve a lead are given a “save”. Yet fundamentally, all three accomplishments are the same. They simply occur at different times of the game. And in fact, if MLB did change the name and continue awarding the stat to pitchers, I’d have far fewer complaints about its existence. But calling it “wins” is misleading and apparently confusing to fans and voters.

Now that I’ve stated these three points– which are, I repeat, indisputable– I’m certain that some of you are shaking your heads and saying something like, “Yeah, but a guy with more wins meant more to his team because winning is all that matters.” 

I know you’re out there. 

I beg of you: Really read what I’ve written here. Actually think about it. Let go of your pre-conceived notions. These aren’t opinions, but simple, basic facts about a statistic used in the game of baseball. I consider it a significant drawback that, for so long, the game has been riddled with this kind of foolishness. But we’re at a point in time where more and more fans are realizing the folly of arbitrary stats. Won’t you join us?

Losing the ‘Win’ Stat is a post originally from: - In Sports We Trust


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