Oh no, he didn’t! Steve Berthiaume wrote an article today for the ESPN Sweet Spot mothership that’s bound to cause quite a stir…
“We shouldn’t have to defend the win. When Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award last season with only 13 wins (and 12 losses), it was considered something of a landmark moment for the slide rule set; a validation of sabermetric analysis as a more definitive measuring set for quantifying pitching performance. BABIP, xFIP, and the quality start were hailed as long overdue counterbalances for inordinate run support or failed bullpens. All true; but let’s not do a sabermetric sidestep around one simple fact: There is still only ONE stat that counts in the division standings and that’s wins. And no major league pitcher has more wins than Pittsburgh’s Kevin Correia.”
Before I go any further, I want to be very clear about something. It’s neither my intent to criticize Berthiaume, nor the good folks at ESPN who have been gracious enough to include us in their network of blogs. At the same time, I’ve never been shy about sharing my opinion, and I’m not going to start now.
With all due respect to Berthiaume (who happens to follow me on Twitter), I strongly disagree with his opinion on the subject of wins. While he makes a valid point that wins and losses in the standings are all that really matters at the end of the day, I think he’s missing the point. The reason why the “win” is such a poor statistical measure for a pitcher is due to it’s arbirtary nature. Think about it. Why does the pitcher get credit for a win or a loss? Why not the catcher? Or the shortstop? Or the closer? Weren’t they just as important to their team getting a win or loss?
Furthermore, why do we pin the entire outcome of a game on a single person? Giving the win or loss to a single player, the pitcher, indicates that he was solely responsible for the end result of a particular game. Last I checked, a minimum of nine players (or ten if you’re in the American League due to the DH) per team contribute to the eventual outcome of a game. A pitcher lacks control over his lineup’s offensive output. He has no control over whether or not his defensive support fields balls cleanly, makes accurate throws, or displays above average range. He can’t control whether or not his bullpen holds the lead. Essentially, a pitcher’s factoring in a decision is merely a matter of circumstance, not necessarily talent.* If anything, a “win” or a “loss” is a team statistic, not an individual statistic.
* Although a certain level of talent can factor into the equation.
Additionally, wins and losses have often been shown to be poor indicators of current future performance. Turning the subject to the Red Sox for a moment, Daisuke Matsuzaka‘s 2008 season is a perfect example. Despite allowing eleventy billion baserunners in 2008, Dice-K somehow managed to go 18-3. His win-loss record and sparkling 2.90 ERA withstanding, nothing about his season could be considered to be effective or efficient. He pitched short outings; walked batters like it was his job; danced in and out of jams he created; and played a significant role in taxing the Red Sox bullpen. His record was largely a function of luck, not talent. Not surprisingly, his Houdini-esque talents didn’t translate either in 2009 or in seasons after.
Clearly, the Dice-K example is an extreme one, but so is King Felix’s 2010 Cy Young season season; or Nolan Ryan’s 8-16 season while winning the ERA and K crowns in 1987; or Rick Helling‘s 20 win season, near-4.50 ERA in 1998. The problem with pitching wins and losses is they’re not only misleading, but also largely function of circumstances outside of a pitcher’s sphere of control. While I agree with Berthiaume that wins and losses are the only stats that ultimately matter, it’s important that we differentiate between team stats and individual stats. As a “team” stat, he’s absolutely correct. The teams that win the most games, typically are the most successful and effective teams. As an “individual” stat, assigning a win/loss decision to a pitcher is somewhat arbitrary and inappropriate.