Thinking Outside The Batter's Box: Players lose when it comes to "winning"

The Newtonite

Thinking Outside The Batter's Box is a blog about baseball published every week.
Thinking Outside The Batter’s Box is a blog about baseball published every week.

by Jacob Gurvis

With the increased use of complicated analytics and the new age of advanced thinking, many statisticians and analysts around Major League Baseball (MLB) are asking the question, “are wins overrated?” Not wins, as in one team beating another team, but wins as is a pitcher getting credited a win or a loss for a start. While obviously wins and losses have always been important and telling stats, their true accuracy and necessity seem to be dwindling.

A pitcher’s win/loss record is used to tell his skill, and help rank pitchers. Nowadays, however, other analytical stats, such as Earned-Run Average (ERA) and Walks plus hits per inning-pitched (WHIP) are more helpful. This thinking, while new and surprising, could change the way pitching and talent are evaluated.

The outcome of a game is not completely decided by the starting pitcher. Obviously a team has to score runs to win. So when a pitcher starts a game, the amount of run support, which is the number of runs scored by a pitcher’s team while he is pitching, has an immense impact on the outcome of the game. Therefore, a pitcher’s run support has a big impact on his record. A pitcher can pitch a phenomenal game, and still lose because of his team’s offensive performance. This happens very often. A pitcher who pitches 7-8 innings and gives up 0-3 runs (considered a very good game) can still lose if his team doesn’t score enough runs.

The perfect example of this from 2013 is Red Sox starter John Lackey. Lackey ranks in the league leaders in quality starts (at least 6 innings, giving up no more than 3 runs, considered an impressive start), strikeouts, and ERA, but only has 10 wins. Lackey gets terrible run support, causing him to lose many well-pitched games. Lackey ranks around 60th in the majors in run support, getting 3.76 runs per game, compared to teammate Ryan Dempster, whose 6.07 runs per game is best in baseball. Sox starter Felix Doubront ranks second, and Sox ace Jon Lester also ranks in the top 10 in run support. Lackey has started 29 games, and has 19 quality starts. Lackey has been great all season, but his 10-13 record doesn’t show that.

Lackey isn’t the only one suffering from this record pain. There are multiple pitchers with 10-12 wins, and 20-22 quality starts, meaning that they pitch well twice as much as they are credited with wins. Many starters consistently pitch good games, but don’t get the benefit of a win due to factors that are out of their control (run support, team’s defense, etc.)

Another good example is in 2010 when Mariners ace Felix Hernandez won the Cy Young, with a lackluster record of 13-12. That season, three pitchers had 20+ wins, and “King Felix” had only 13, not an impressive number of wins for an ace. Despite the low number of wins, Hernandez’s 2.27 ERA was tops in the MLB, and he ranked second in strikeouts and WHIP in the American League (AL.) These stats are more telling, because they are directly determined by the pitcher’s performance, rather than being affected by uncontrollable circumstances. Those stats show a pitcher’s true skill and dominance and are more valuable than a record. So while Hernandez’s record didn’t overly impress anyone, his other stats proved that he was the best pitcher in baseball that year.

What all these stats show is that a pitcher’s record alone no longer accurately shows his true talent. Many pitchers pitch well on a consistent basis yet don’t get credit for it because of their mediocre record. Pitchers get punished, in terms of their talents being unfairly judged, because records are so heavily used to determine skill, when in reality, they are often times misleading. This isn’t to say that the win/loss record should be eliminated as a statistic, but it should not be the leading statistic in judging pitchers, because it does not fairly express their skill and performance.