Jon Heyman Kills The Win While Trying to Save It

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Here at New English D we are on the front lines of the #KillTheWin movement. If you’re new to the site and are open-minded, please check out our 5 part series on why wins aren’t useful:

All of those links make a singular case. Wins are not useful when evaluating individual pitchers. The goal of baseball fans and analysts is to properly understand the game we love. Wins don’t cause poverty, but wins are detrimental to our understanding of baseball because so many people use them as a measure of value, which they are not.

Today, Jon Heyman wrote about Max Scherzer (currently leading the league in wins by a lot) and couldn’t resist fighting back against the #KillTheWin movement. He makes several points. First, he argues that Scherzer should narrowly beat Felix for the AL Cy. Hey, we agree on that! Second, he says those of us trying to kill the win are wasting our time. That’s silly because we enjoy killing the win and baseball is about having fun, but I’m not going to engage in pettiness when the real issues are much more important.

Next, Heyman says:

Wins do matter (though clearly not nearly as much as we once thought — and I give the stat guys credit for pointing this out.) No starter gets to 19-1 only because they are lucky, or because they “happened” to be “standing on the mound” when his team scored a ton of runs, as some would have you believe.

So here we see Heyman acknowledge that he places less stock in wins today that he used to. Meaning that he was wrong before and therefore could be wrong again. Furthermore, Heyman says no one goes 19-1 because of luck/happenstance/standing on the mound. Actually, Jon, they do. Scherzer is an excellent starting pitcher, but he is not meaningfully better than Felix. Certainly not better than Kershaw or Harvey. Yet he has many more wins than they do and many fewer losses. The difference is that the Tigers score crazy amount of runs for Scherzer because they are really good at scoring runs. Additionally, he gets more runs than his other rotation-mates. Scherzer gets 7.32 runs per 9. Felix gets 4.73. Chris Sale gets 3.03.

Even if you want to dramatically oversimplify baseball and assume a pitcher controls everything that happens when he is on the mound (he doesn’t), he still has no control over what his offense does. In order to get a win, you have to be in the game when your team takes the lead for the final time. If you team doesn’t score, or scores AT THE WRONG TIME, you do not get a win regardless of how you pitched.

It’s obvious that Heyman knows this based on his comments throughout the piece:

There are a lot better numbers to illustrate a pitcher’s performance over a season than wins and losses.

But does that mean a pitcher’s record is now totally worthless?

Heyman argues that wins are not the most important thing, but that they are not worthless. Which poses the important question at which I will now arrive. What do wins tell us that we can’t see in other stats?

What is the value of seeing a W/L record beyond seeing things like ERA, K%, BB%, GB%, FIP, xFIP, WAR, RE24, SwStr%, IP, etc? What do wins and losses add to the discussion?

Nothing. Not one thing. Heyman says consistency, but that isn’t the case. Check out the link about about “misleading” and you’ll see that argument doesn’t hold water. Good, consistent pitchers can win less often than bad and inconsistent ones. Heyman says wins aren’t about being in the right place at the right time, but they clearly are. The Tigers score a disproportionate number of runs for Scherzer than they do for his teammates. Scherzer is both good and lucky. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but that doesn’t mean he should get credit for something he had nothing to do with.

Scherzer is great. He has an excellent W/L record. Those two things are related, but not highly related. Good pitchers, on average, win more often than bad ones because they have some control over the number of runs they allow but that doesn’t mean judging a player by wins and losses is useful. It adds nothing to our understanding and does more harm than good. Heyman cites Tillman making the ASG as case and point.

Wins influence people’s thinking, whether it’s Tillman in the ASG or it’s Dusty Baker leaving Bailey on the mound when he was losing it so he could “have a chance to get a win.”

My argument here is that wins provide us with no meaningful information and at best are trivial and at worst are negatively impacting games. Heyman concludes:

The goal, ultimately, is to win games when a pitcher takes the mound, and Scherzer has done that better than anybody. Yes, there is a lot of luck involved in getting pitcher wins. But in Scherzer’s case, he has pitched great, too, and no one should claim he hasn’t.

Which is interesting, because the Scherzer is getting a lot of luck as far as wins go. Sale isn’t pitching as well as Scherzer, but he’s not pitching 9-12 to 19-1 worse. Also, Heyman is using a strawman argument in his closing. No one, not one single person, thinks Scherzer hasn’t been great. He’s been amazing. Fantastic. Cy Young or very close to it, brilliant. That’s not what this is about at all. He’s 19-1 and Chris Sale is 9-12. He’s not “10 wins” better than Sale. Not under any real definition of pitching ability or performance. This is a statistic that doesn’t reflect performance at all. It adds nothing to the conversation you can’t get elsewhere. That’s why we want to kill it.

I would like to point out the broader issue. Heyman is actually one of the more evolutionary members of the old guard. He clearly sees the fault in wins, but still wants to defend them. Read his defense. Think about it for yourself, it’s like he wants to hold onto wins because he’s used to them. And that’s not a good reason. “How we’ve always done things” is not a good way to make decisions.

I don’t understand the purpose of Heyman’s argument. Why does he want to save them? What utility do they bring to the conversation? This is not a personal assault on Heyman, but he put his views out there in writing, so they are open to criticism. I’m an academic and a baseball writer, so I know about critical feedback. You’re welcome to criticize my reasoning as well. I can take it, don’t worry. I offered Heyman a chance to clarify his message on Twitter and he has yet to do so. If he writes back, I’ll be glad to amend this post.

There is no value in looking at wins and losses for a starting pitcher. That’s not about Scherzer or Felix, it’s about analysts and fans. In fact, Heyman and his fellow BBWAA members should use their access to go ask Scherzer about wins, or even Google his quotes on the issue. He gets it and he’s the person who benefits most from looking at wins. If he doesn’t care about them, it’s time to let them go.

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