Times are changing. Just 15 years ago, text messaging was phasing out the need for a beeper. Ten years ago, the first iPhone was released. Even just five years ago, a pitcher’s win-loss record mattered. Today, not so much.
Putting my late 90s references aside, I think it’s time to stop judging a Major League starting pitcher based on wins and losses. What? I know, I know. At the end of the day, in other sports you are judged merely on wins and losses. Baseball is different though.
In baseball, we credit the starting pitcher with either a win or a loss for his team’s outcome. With the slight exception for goalies in hockey or keepers in soccer, it’s the only major North American sport where an individual is credited with his team’s successes or failures.
Think about it, when you judge Atlanta Falcons MVP quarterback Matt Ryan on his level of greatness, do you say, “Well he’s great because he’s 88-62?” Probably not. Love him or hate him, you probably utilize numbers like passing yards and touchdowns. You note phrases like “fourth-quarter comebacks” and “Super Bowl appearances.”
Even in the NBA, when you think of NBA Hall of Famer and icon, Michael Jordan, do you automatically think of how many wins and losses he had over his entire career?
If you do, props to you. But I promise you, at the end of the day, most of us just simply remember MJ for his six NBA championships. Also, the Loony Toons movie (Space Jam) he did; which I thought was great as a kid but after watching a few minutes of it recently, I’ve come to realize it was a more failed endeavor than his baseball career. No offense Michael. At least that Nike shoe deal worked out well.
In the new age of baseball where advanced analytics have taken over, isn’t it time to stop looking at one person being responsible for what the other eight guys on the field are doing or not doing behind him?
Today, as a major league pitcher you can go seven innings, allowing just one mistake to be hit out of the ballpark. It doesn’t matter if you struck out 15 batters and only allowed one or two hits. If your guys didn’t back you up with any run support, you can still find yourself hooked with a loss in a 1-0 defeat.
On the flip side, there are plenty of pitchers who have gone five or six innings giving up a handful of runs. But if their lineup is hitting the opposing pitcher even better, they can be credited with a win despite walking off the mound having given up 10 runs on 20 hits in a 12-10 team victory.
For years, many baseball fans place a false significance on a starting pitcher winning 20 games in a season. Like that is the benchmark for greatness. If a pitcher tallies 20 wins in one season, he’s almost automatically a top candidate for the Cy Young Award that season.
There is even a more certain preconceived notion that pitchers who won 300 games over the course of their career are automatically inducted into the Hall of Fame. In fact, every 300-game winner who has been retired at least five years has been enshrined in Cooperstown. So, I can understand the correlation between 300 “wins” and greatness.
The reality is that wins and losses have a lot more to do with team success. Just ask Shelby Miller, who went 6-17 with the Atlanta Braves in 2015. Those 17 losses? The most by any MLB pitcher that year. However, Miller finished with a 3.02 earned run average. That ERA put Miller in the category for top 15 best pitchers that season.
The Braves went on to finish 2015 with a record of 67-95; the most losses they had since the 1990 season. Miller though, was a hot commodity and Atlanta used him as a big trade piece when they sent the righty to Arizona in exchange for Ender Inciarte, Dansby Swanson, and Aaron Blair.
Regardless if Swanson ever lives up to the hype of being the first overall pick in the 2015 draft, don’t ask Diamondbacks’ fans how they feel about that deal.
Lately I’ve heard a lot of people in the game, these advanced analytics proponents, talking about WAR (wins above replacement) and WPA (win probability). That’s fine if you’re in to that kind of thing.
Though, there are only two statistics that are relevant for starting pitchers today.
The first, ERA, which measures the average number of runs a pitcher allows over nine innings. It is ultimately what you want from a pitcher? To prevent runs from scoring. It doesn’t matter if he walks the bases loaded, if a run doesn’t score that inning, he did his job.
The second stat we should look at when determining a good pitcher? Innings pitched (IP). How many innings a guy can toss comes down to efficiency and stamina. Pitchers that can hurl 200 or more innings throughout a season can relieve the workload of a taxed bullpen.
Although wins and ERA can often have a correlation, at the end of the day, it’s not always the case.
I mentioned Miller’s 2015 season with the Braves. Two other strong comparisons would be that of the 2010 season where Phil Hughes won 18 games with the Yankees. But, he had a rather inflated ERA of 4.19. It’s worth noting that Hughes had the highest scoring lineup that season. New York gave him ample amounts of run support.
Meanwhile, that same year, Mariners ace Felix Hernandez only won 13 games but finished the season with a 2.27 ERA. Despite Seattle’s lack of team success that year, Hernandez was given the Cy Young Award for his dominance on the mound in 2010.
So, before we automatically want to give a 20-game winner the title of “future Hall of Famer” or write off a 15-game loser as “a bust,” it’s time we get with the present and ditch the win-loss record.
Yes, I know earlier I said every pitcher with 300 career wins ends up in the Hall of Fame. Three members of that exclusive 300-win club though, Randy Johnson, Greg Maddux and Nolan Ryan also maintained ERAs of 3.29, 3.16 and 3.19, respectively throughout their entire playing careers. That’s a much better reflection of their ability than wins. With those kinds of numbers over the course of their career, whether they had 100 or 300 wins, they would still find themselves in Cooperstown.
What is a pitcher’s ERA? Does he eat up enough quality innings to give his team a chance to win every time he takes the mound? That’s what greatness is right? Being the best at what you do and giving your team a chance to win every time you take the field.
You probably threw out that beeper. Most of us have an unlimited phone plan now and the iPhone is currently working on its’ seventh model. It’s time to ditch a pitcher’s record in relevance to his greatness. Welcome to baseball in 2017.