To bring you up to speed I’ve been laying out evidence over the last few weeks in an effort to help banish the pitcher win as a method for measuring individual performance. I’ve covered a number of topics such as:
- Pitchers who had great seasons and didn’t win
- Pitchers who had below average seasons and won a ton
- These numbers not balancing out over an entire career
The simple complaint with the win statistic is that it doesn’t measure individual performance but is used by people to reflect the quality of an individual. Wins are about pitchers, but they are also about run support, defense, the other team, and luck. We shouldn’t use such a blunt tool when measuring performance when we have better ones. I’ve provided a lot of evidence in the links above supporting this claim, but those have posts about the best and worst and about career long samples. Today, I’d like to offer a simple case study from 2012 to illustrated the problem with wins.
The faces I’ll put on this issue are Cliff Lee and Barry Zito, both of whom appeared on the lists above.
Let’s start with some simple numbers from their 2012 campaigns to get you up to speed. Lee threw more than 25 more inning than Zito and performed better across the board:
Lee had a much higher strikeout rate and much lower walk rate.
If you’re someone who likes Wins Above Replacement (WAR) or Win Probability Added (WPA) it all points in Lee’s favor as well:
By every reasonable season long statistic, Cliff Lee had a better season than Barry Zito. If you look more closely, you can see that Lee had a great year and Zito had a below average, but not terrible season. There is simply no case to be made that Barry Zito was a better pitcher than Cliff Lee during the 2012 season. None.
But I’m sure you can see where this is going. Cliff Lee’s Won-Loss record was 6-9 and Barry Zito’s was 15-8. Lee threw more innings, allowed fewer runs per 9, struck out more batters, walked fewer batters, and did just about everything a pitcher can do to prevent runs better than Barry Zito and he had a much worse won-loss record. Something is wrong with that. Let’s dig a bit deeper and consider their performances in Wins, Losses, and No Decisions.
Let’s start with something as simple as ERA. In Wins, Losses, and ND, Cliff Lee allowed fewer runs than Zito despite pitching his home games in a park that skews toward hitters and Zito in a park that skews toward pitchers:
In fact, Lee’s ERA in Losses is almost identical to Zito’s in No Decisions. He allowed the same number of runs when he pitched “poorly” enough to lose as when Zito pitched in a “neutral” way. If we take a look at strikeout to walk ratio, it looks even more lopsided:
Lee way outperforms Zito in the measure even if you put Lee’s “worst” starts up against Zito’s “best” ones. Let’s take a look at OPS against in these starts, and remember, Lee pitches in a hitters’ park and Zito in a pitchers’ park:
Again we find that Lee pitches as well in Losses and Zito does in No Decisions and performs much better across the board. Not only does Lee allow fewer runs in each type of decision, he has a better K/BB rate, and a lower OPS against in pitching environments that should favor Zito.
Everything about their individual seasons indicates that Cliff Lee had a much better season than Barry Zito and when you break it down by Wins, Losses, and Decisions, it is very clear that Lee performed better in all of these types of events. Lee was unquestionably better. No doubt. But Lee was 6-9 and Zito was 15-8. Zito won more games and lost fewer.
If we look at the earned run distribution, you can clearly see that Lee was better overall, on average, and by start:
You likely don’t need more convincing that Lee was better than Zito, in fact, you probably knew that from the start. Lee was better in every way, but Zito’s record was better. How can wins and losses be useful for measuring a player when they can be so wrong about such an obvious case?
Cliff Lee prevented runs better than Zito last season. He went deeper into games. More strikeouts, fewer walks, lower OPS against in a tougher park. He was better than Zito in Wins, Losses, and ND and often better in Losses than Zito was in ND. How can this be? It’s very simple. Wins and Losses aren’t just about the quality of the pitcher, not by a long shot. Even ignoring potential differences in defensive quality (Giants were slightly better) and assuming pitchers can control every aspect of run prevention it still isn’t enough. Lee was better and had a worse record. What good is a pitching statistic if it is this dependent on your offense? It isn’t any good.
Here friends, are their run support per 9 numbers. This should tell you the whole story:
The Giants got Zito 6 runs a game on average and the Phillies got Lee 3.2. It didn’t matter that Lee way out pitched Zito, he still had no shot to win as many games because the Giants scored runs for Zito and the Phillies didn’t score for Lee. The Giants during the entire season scored 4.4 runs per game. The Phillies scored 4.2. This isn’t as easy as saying that pitchers on better teams win more often. Lee’s team scored much less for him on average and the Giants scored much more for Zito on average.
You can’t just say that a pitcher with a great offense will win more often, it comes down to the precise moments in which they score. How can that possibly have anything to do with the pitchers this statistic hopes to measure? It can’t.
If my global evidence about the subjectivity and uselessness of wins didn’t get you, I hope that this has. There is no justification for using wins to measure pitchers when something like this can happen. Lee was much better than Zito in every way, but if you’re using wins and losses, you wouldn’t know it.
And, just in case you were wondering, Lee was a better hitter too.
Tonight, Mike Trout lost the MVP race to Miguel Cabrera. We expected as much. Traditional thinking that favors team success in the MVP voting won out and Trout, who had the better season, came in second.
A lot of other weird things happened in the full balloting. Like the couple people who left Cano off the ballot. Or how no one put Torii Hunter, Alex Gordon, or Austin Jackson on their ballots anywhere from 1-10. And how Jim Johnson (who is a great reliever) was anywhere near the voting.
But we should probably take stock of our lives at this point and realize these awards don’t matter at all. The BBWAA hands out these awards based on the preferences of their members. Sporting News does the same thing. Other smaller groups hand out their own. (SABR Toothed Tigers included and the vote was unanimous!)
BBWAA has prominence because they are the oldest. There is history attached, but that’s all. Mike Trout’s season is no less impressive or memorable because he didn’t win the MVP. Neither was Verlander’s because he lost the Cy Young
We get caught up in these races because we like talking about sports, but the actual consequences are very small unless you’re one of the players involved. So while I think a lot of the voting this year and in past years is garbage, it doesn’t really affect my life or yours and I’m not going to bed angry.
Things don’t always happen the way they should. That’s part of life. Mike Trout will wake up tomorrow as the best player from 2012 whether or not he has a plaque to show it. Miguel Cabrera will clear room on his mantle.
While a lot of the conversation surrounding this award was toxic, I think the race was great for the game. Cabrera supporters acted silly by dismissing sabermetrics, but not because they don’t like sabermetrics, but because the only reason they don’t like them is they don’t like what sabermetrics told them.
Sabermetrics are great. They give you a lot of information. It’s silly to dismiss them because you don’t like what they tell you. The people wanted Cabrera to win, so they attacked the method of the people supporting Trout. That’s what I didn’t like.
The Trout crew was also at fault. Honestly, we walked around like the Cabrera supports needed their mittens pinned to their jackets like four year olds. We lost sight of the fact that Cabrera had a great season and deserved to be near the top of the ballot.
We shouldn’t dismiss the human element of the game so quickly just because we think it’s silly. Most valuable player means best player to us in the sabermetric community, but a lot of people think and vote with their gut. MVP is about the story. It is about the narrative. Just because we don’t like that, doesn’t mean that isn’t okay. Narratives are fun.
I didn’t like that this became about stats and tradition, because it was really about evidence and instinct. We who supported Trout like tangible evidence. Those who backed Cabrera care about weaving the evidence together in a way that feels right and exciting.
It’s totally okay that people supported Cabrera for that reason, but they should say so. It should be about liking him or liking the idea of a power hitter or liking the idea of carrying a team to the postseason. But all of those are stories we tell ourselves. It’s baseball mythology and it’s great, but admit that’s what it was and I’ll be fine.
So while I don’t like how angry this got, I love that we were in this position. We watched phenomenal baseball in 2012. Trout versus Cabrera wasn’t a close race for most people (because they strongly favored one or the other), but man was it a fun one. Trout being an all-around star while Cabrera mashed.
It was one for the ages. So was the Cy Young race. And the NL race was awesome two, we just forgot to look. The AL Manager of the Year was razor thin and we got to witness the Year of Mike Trout and the beginning of Bryce Harper.
The Dodgers bought a team and the Red Sox started over. The A’s came from nowhere and the Orioles wouldn’t go away. The Cardinals kept the magic alive and the Rangers crumbled.
Phil Humber threw a perfect game. So did Matt Cain and King Felix, but my god, Phil Humber threw a perfect game. I’ll never forget that. It was during my bachelor party.
Justin Verlander and Clayton Kershaw pitched brilliantly. R.A. Dickey for crying out loud.
The Pirates had something to say and the Nationals built a winner. Fernando Rodney was a shutdown reliever. Fernando. Rodney.
Bret Lawrie fell six feet onto concrete to catch a baseball and Chris Sale didn’t need surgery.
Baseball was awesome in 2012. It was beautiful and unpredictable and wonderfully cruel.
The Infield Fly Rule Game in Atlanta broke hearts and made dreams come true. Chipper Jones and Omar Vizquel retired, leaving the five year old in me a little confused about where baseball went.
So while this feels like the end of a bitter civil war, it’s really the end of a great chapter in a supremely thrilling novel. On April 1st, 30 teams clung to the hope that this would, in fact, be the year. Only one held on all season.
So we’ll follow trades and free agents and we’ll prepare for fantasy drafts and cactus league games. We’ll stare out the window and wait for spring.
It was a fun season and now it’s really over. Miguel Cabrera won the MVP over Mike Trout, but the real winner was us. We got to sit on our coaches, in our cars, and in our seats and watch this spectacular drama unfold.
With a Sergio Romo fastball down the middle and with the bat in Miguel Cabrera’s hands, the 2012 MLB season came to a close last night, ending 29 teams’ hopes at a championship and making the San Francisco Giants and their fans very happy.
First off, congratulations to the Giants. They had a great year and played well in October. Well-earned title for a city that loves its team.
For Tigers fans like myself, hold your heads up high. You might have a bad taste in your mouths after a rough series, but allow me to remind you the Tigers had a successful season. I’ve heard a lot of negative talk about the team in the last day or so from national and local personalities, but they are wrong. The Tigers should be proud, but not satisfied.
It’s easy to put too much focus of the World Series because it’s the biggest stage, but any team can slump. The offense only scored six runs in four games, but the pitching (short of Verlander) was great.
The Tigers swept the AL’s best team (by record) in the ALCS and beat the AL’s best story in the ALDS. This was a good season. Big changes are not necessary. The World Series is a small sample. Victor Martinez is coming back. Young players will improve. Other could bounce back. Relax and look back with fondness.
So some parting thoughts on the 2012 Tigers (full 2012 recaps of all 30 teams to come).
The Tigers have a starting rotation worthy of envy. Verlander is the game’s best. Fister is quietly becoming a top 25 starter. Scherzer is somewhat inconsistent but showed some serious improvement this season and has always had take-over-a-game stuff. I’m still a huge believer in Rick Porcello as well. He’s a groundballer with a poor defense so some of his numbers are inflated, but the guy has never been hurt and has four major league seasons under his belt at 23 (23!!!). He’s still three or four years south of his peak. Smyly showed he can easily be a #5 starter in the show this year and could maybe even be more. All of these guys are under team control for at least two more seasons. Not bad, even if they don’t resign Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers will return baseball’s best staff by WAR.
Cabrera and Fielder are a great middle of the order and will be for years to come. Next year, they’ll get backup from Victor Martinez. Jackson took a big step forward this season. Dirks looks like a fourth outfielder or better. Infante can certainly hold down 2B.
Avila, despite what you might think, is actually a very good catcher. He’s a gold glove finalist this year and his OBP was great even if his batting average wasn’t. (Hint: Walks count as much as singles!) The power was down a little, but he had some injuries and still has a year or two til his peak age.
Peralta is also a pretty solid MLB SS. He’s solid on defense (advanced metrics love him), even if he’s unremarkable. At the plate he’s been up and down but is certainly capable of getting hits at the bottom of your lineup.
That only leaves a corner outfield spot and some bullpen spots open for next year. A lot of teams would kill to be in this position.
Refine the bullpen. Sign Torii Hunter. Get back to the playoffs. That’s my simple recommendation if you’re looking toward the next step.
This is a well-built team if you don’t care about defense. But if Dirks and (hopefully) Hunter are manning the corners next season, things get a lot better.
Don’t let anyone get you down. The Tigers have a wide open window toward a title in the near future. In fact, in the first round of World Series odds out today, the Tigers are the favorite to win in 2013.
2012 is over and I’m sad to see it go, but 2013 could be just as bright or brighter. 154 days until Opening Day.
Let’s start counting.