If you’re here, you’ve likely been exposed to our series on pitcher wins and why we want to kill them. It’s become a pretty big topic of conversation around baseball and some people are calling for a cease fire because the win has been repeatedly slaughtered to the point that we’ve probably violated the Geneva Convention. So, I’ll make sure to avoid overdoing it because apparently #KillTheWin is sabr-bullying. If you’re new to the cause, check out the groundwork for why wins are a terrible statistic and then enjoy The Nine Worst Wins from 2013 (as of Sept 13th).
- You Can Have A Great Season and Not Win
- You Can Have A Bad Season and Win A Lot
- Wins Don’t Even Out in Big Samples
- A Case Study in Wins
- 12 Assorted Facts About Wins from 2013
- Dissecting the Case for Wins
- A Replacement for Wins
So the methodology is quite simple. Below are the pitchers in 2013 who have earned a “win” sorted by the lowest Win Probability Added (WPA). What WPA does is measure how much the team’s likelihood of winning changed as a result of every play and assigns that value to the pitcher and batter who took part. It’s not a perfect stat for measuring a player’s performance but it works for our purposes here for a simple reason. If a pitcher’s team scores 10 runs in the first inning, that pitcher can pitch poorly and get a win, but most of the pro-win alliance thinks that’s okay. They believe in something called “pitching to the score” which has been shown to be fiction. So in order to make the point clearly, I’ll use WPA which is entirely dependent on context. If you’re up 10, you’re allowed to give up 5. If you’re up 1, you better not give up two.
There are other ways to do this, but I think this is the most valuable way to do it given the audience still in need of persuasion.
|9||Randall Delgado||2-Aug||ARI||BOS||W 7-6||GS-6 ,W|
|8||Brandon League||31-May||LAD||COL||W 7-5||9-9 ,BW|
|7||CC Sabathia||18-Aug||NYY||BOS||W 9-6||GS-6 ,W|
|6||Alfredo Simon||22-Apr||CIN||CHC||W 5-4||13-13f,W|
|5||Rafael Soriano||17-May||WSN||SDP||W 6-5||9-9 ,BW|
|4||Matt Belisle||28-Jul||COL||MIL||W 6-5||8-8 ,BW|
|3||Joe Smith||26-Jun||CLE||BAL||W 4-3||8-8 ,BW|
|2||Michael Wacha||19-Aug||STL||MIL||W 8-5||7-7 ,BW|
|1||Kyuji Fujikawa||12-Apr||CHC||SFG||W 4-3||9-9f ,BW|
To date, there have been 282 wins in which the pitcher had a negative WPA in 2013. Above you’ve seen the nine worst including Fujikawa having just about the worst performance I could imagine in a win using this method. In fact, as far back as we have WPA data, it’s the 14th worst such win.
It looked like this! That’s pretty bad.
This is all by way of saying that wins aren’t a useful statistic and that even if we allow for the idea of pitching to the score, we still have a ton of ridiculous wins every season. If every win was handed out perfectly the rest of the season, we would still have seen 11.6% of the wins in 2013 go to pitchers who hurt their team’s chance to win.
If you’ve been here before, or someone like Brian Kenny tweeted a link to this post, you know that we are big proponents of the #KillTheWin movement. We don’t like wins and losses as a pitching statistic for many reasons. You can pitch well and not get a win, you can pitch terribly and get a win, wins don’t even out, and wins are extremely misleading. Put simply, wins are dependent on things that pitchers can’t control and it’s silly to measure them based on something their teammates do. Here are links to all of our formative #KillTheWin work:
- You Can Pitch Great and Not Win
- You Can Pitch Poorly and Win
- Wins Don’t Even Out Over Long Careers
- Wins Mislead You When Comparing Players
- Assorted Facts About Wins from 2013
- Dissecting the Case in Support of Wins
But today I’d like to address a solution that a lot of people are calling for. You see, the old guard won’t let go of the wins and losses concept and language. They can’t accept things like FIP, xFIP, and WAR, or even K%, BB%, GB%. Even ERA is doesn’t satisfy their longing for the “W.” So I’d like to propose a simple idea that simply changes the methodology for awarding wins and losses. Currently, a starter has to pitch at least 5 innings, leave with a lead, and not watch the bullpen surrender that lead. If we invented wins and losses today, no doubt we wouldn’t use such a silly rule.
So let’s use a better one. If there is an appetite for Wins and Losses, why don’t we actually tie wins and losses to performance? Here are two basic proposals that do that while solving a couple of key issues with wins.
The first problem with wins and losses is that it depends on how much and when your team scores. So what we want is something that only measures the impact of the pitcher on the game. Another problem with wins and losses is that the no-decision essentially erases everything you did on a given day. If a pitcher throws 7 shutout innings and gets a no decision, that game shows up in every single one of his stats except wins and losses. We want to judge every start a pitcher makes, not just one in which the right conditions are met by his offense and bullpen.
To partially resolve this issue, let’s turn to the 2013 Tigers as an example. Instead of wins and losses as determined by the current rule, what if we allocate them by Win Probability Added (WPA) or Run Expectancy 24 (RE24)? Those two stats are a bit complicated to calculate, but extremely easy to understand. WPA reflects the percentage by which a player improved his team’s chances of winning. It is very context dependent, but you can still earn positive values even when your team is losing. RE24 is a similar statistic except it doesn’t pay attention to the score of the game and just reflects how many runs above or below average you are contributing. Think of it this way, in a 10-0 game a solo homerun has a pretty low WPA because the game is already decided, but it has the same RE24 in a 10-0 as it does in a 2-0 game. Both allow for the addition of value in a context dependent sense, but both also allow a player to add value even when his team is not. Both of these stats are readily available on FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.
Below I present the 2013 Tigers with WPA and RE24 “wins.” If a pitcher has a positive WPA or RE24 for a single game they get a win. If it’s negative, they get a loss. No no-decisions and no concern about how the game actually ended. Did the pitcher improve his team’s chances of winning a single game? That’s what wins and losses should tell us, so let’s try this.
There are obvious weakness to this approach, namely that I’m not addressing by how much a pitcher helped his team, but to answer that question, we have season long numbers that are more important. This approach is meant to give people who want to see wins and losses a better reflection of true value.
|Pitcher||Starts||W-L||WPA W-L||RE24 W-L|
You will notice a couple of things. You’ll notice that Scherzer’s no-decisions are primarily the function of his team bailing him out and Fister, Sanchez, and Verlander’s are almost all a case of the Tigers not providing enough run support. Porcello’s are divided pretty evenly. This is interesting because it shows that even on individual teams, wins/losses/no decisions are handed out irregularly despite the same contingent of position players.
For the die-hard #KillTheWin-er, this approach is still too context dependent and derived from an illogical attempt to hand wins and losses to a single player. But for a more traditional observer, hopefully this is compelling. Even if you like wins and losses, surely you can appreciate that the actual way in which wins and losses are assigned is arbitrary and foolish. Why is 5 innings the cutoff? Why do you not get a win if you pitch 8 shutout innings and your team wins in a walkoff? Why should you get a win if you allow 6 runs? Even if you want to track day to day contribution, at least track it in a way that reflects what the player you’re judging actually did.
Now I’m not sure if this is the best way, but this is definitely an improvement over wins and losses as currently defined. The current stat makes no contribution to analysis, this one makes some contribution. I’d still rather pay attention to season long numbers, but if we’re going to judge a player in each individual game, let’s at least do it right.
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:
- You Can Pitch Great and Not Win
- You Can Pitch Poorly and Win
- Wins Don’t Even Out Over Long Careers
- Wins Mislead You When Comparing Players
- Assorted Facts About Wins from 2013
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.
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.