THE MEANING OF A WIN
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
|Johan Santana had the Cy Young award snatched
from him by Bartolo Colon because of the
overvaluing of the win statistic.
There is nothing quite like baseball in that its statstics are heralded more so than the games themselves. Homerun chases, potential Triple Crown winners, career strikeouts -- they're all statistics baseball fans adore and pay attention to. Some statistics are meaningful and are good metrics of a player's performance, while others are simply window dressing and not indicative of a good or bad player.
One of those metrics is the win. Simply put, a win is given to the pitcher of record when the team took its final lead. There is no limit on how many runs a pitcher can give up to earn a win, and there is no limit on how many runs an offense can score in support of the pitcher that earns the win. Pitcher A can pitch 9 innings and give up just one run and not be credited with a win (because his team scores one or less runs) while Pitcher B can pitch 5 innings, give up 15 runs, and still earn the win if his team scores 16. On the basis of wins, both pitchers came out the same, but clearly Pitcher A put forth the better effort.
Over the course of a season, the win is a poor metric to judge a pitcher's worth. For example, Minnesota Twins left-hander Johan Santana lost the 2005 AL Cy Young Award to Bartolo Colon of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, even though Santana led or tied Colon in every statistical category except for wins (five less than Colon) and walks (two more than Colon); Santana had less losses (1), more complete games (1), more shutouts (2), more innings pitched (9), less hits allowed (35), less earned runs allowed (16), less homeruns allowed (4), more strikeouts (81), a lower ERA (0.61), a lower WHIP (0.19), and a lower batting average against (.044) (Chart). Add in the fact that Santana's Twins scored him 4.47 runs per game on average, while Colon's team scored him 5.55 runs on average, and Santana clearly was the better pitcher in 2005.
Another example that shows the futility of the win is comparing two seasons where a pitcher got the same amount of wins. For this example, we will compare the 1998 and 2006 seasons of Steve Trachsel, of the Cubs and Mets, respectively. In 1998, Trachsel started 3 more games, pitched more innings (43 and two-thirds), struck out more hitters (70), had a lower ERA (0.51), had a lower WHIP (0.22), and a lower batting average against (0.03). In 2006, Trachsel gave up less hits (19), less earned runs (12), less homeruns (4), and less walks (6), but in three less games (Chart). If he were to pitch those three games, he would have to allow an average of 6 hits, 4 runs, 1 homerun, and 2 walks or fewer per game. Clearly, Trachsel's 1998 season was better than his 2006 season, but he got the same amount of wins, and nearly identical run support (5.23 in '98 and 5.46 in '06), in both.
So, what should be used in lieu of the pitching records? Sabermetricians offer a wide array of ways to evaluate a player's worth. Here are some:
- VORP: Value Over Replacement Player. The number of runs contributed beyond what a replacement-level player at the same position would contribute if given the same percentage of team plate appearances.
- ERA+: ERA measured against the league average, and adjusted for ballpark factors. An ERA+ over 100 is better than average, less than 100 is below average.
- PRC: Pitching Runs Created. The notion behind Pitching Runs Created is that a run saved is worth more than a run scored, and PRC puts runs saved on the same scale as runs scored. You can directly compare PRC to a batter's Runs Created to gauge each player's relative value to his team.
Other statistics that are poor metrics:
- Strikeouts (offense): Strikeouts are just like any other out most of the time. For instance, 33% of all outs end an inning, so all third-out strikeouts are as equal as a fly ball or a ground ball. Of course, putting the ball in play allows the possibility of two things to happen (and they're not mutually exclusive): the defense may commit an error, or one or more runners may advance. However, there is also the chance that the batter will hit into a double- or triple-play, and there is the chance that when a batter strikes out, the catcher will fail to secure the ball, allowing the batter to reach first base. Most of the time, a strikeout equals a fly ball equals a ground ball.
- Batting average with runners in scoring position: If Ryan Howard hits a two-run homerun with a runner on first base, and Albert Pujols drives in two runners on second and third with a single, both have knocked in two runs, but Howard gets no credit for hitting with runners in scoring position. Both have the same end result (two RBI), except Pujols is considered to have a more "clutch" (also a disputed term) hit than Howard. The general RBI statistic is the more reliable statistic.
- Saves: Just like wins, saves are partially reliant on the offense. There are caps on saves, though: the pitcher must finish the game having entered the game with a lead of no greater than three runs (give or take certain odd circumstances). Let's say that Tom Gordon enters the top of the eighth inning with a 4-3 lead. Gordon mows down the opposition in order, and the Phillies score 5 runs in the bottom of the inning. Gordon goes into the top of the ninth with a 9-3 lead, and can give up five runs and still get credit for the save.
- Wins (for relievers): Wins for relievers are just as meaningless as wins for starters. And similar to the save situation, a relief pitcher can go into the game in a 3-3 tie, give up 5 runs, and his team can score 6 runs and still give him the win. In addition, if a starter does not go the required five innings, the following rule arbitrarily gives the win to a reliever: "When, during the tenure of the starting pitcher, the winning team assumes the lead and maintains it to the finish of the game, credit the victory to the relief pitcher judged by the scorer to have been the most effective."
- Hold: This one should need no further explanation after its definition: "A hold is awarded to a relief pitcher if he enters in a save situation, records at least one out, and leaves the game without having relinquished that lead." Wikipedia expands on it: "Unlike saves, more than one pitcher can earn a hold in a game. It is also not necessary for the pitcher's team to win the game in order to achieve a hold; they merely have to be in the lead at the time the pitcher exits."