The Ole Ball Game

I was watching a Jays game a few nights ago, and they mentioned Roy Halladay’s 8-6 record, as well as both Shawn Marcum and Ricky Romero, both of whom pitched very well at the beginning of the season but got no run support and therefore have fewer wins than they really deserve. I already knew this (as do all baseball fans), but it became clear to me once again that wins and losses are a rather meaningless stat for pitchers. It seems to me that a pitcher is not out there to help his team win, he is out there to help his team not lose. There’s a subtle but important difference there. To win a baseball game, you have to score more runs than the other team, and (ignoring the occasional NL miracle of a pitcher hitting) the pitcher can’t help do that. All he can do is try to minimize the number of runs the other team gets. Short of throwing a perfect game and hitting a home run, a pitcher cannot win a game by himself. But he sure can lose one.

How many times have you seen a pitcher throw a complete game with no walks, a handful of hits, give up one or two runs, and lose because his team scored nothing? Happens all the time. Hell, there have been pitchers who have thrown no-hitters and lost the game. And yet who, according to the pitching stats, is responsible for the loss? The pitcher – the only guy on the team who did his job.

It’s even more interesting when you consider relief pitchers, particularly closers. I remember a year when Tom Henke had a great season but finished with an 0-6 record, and some baseball journalist said that this wasn’t nearly as bad as it sounded because wins, for a closer, are generally a bad thing. This seemed incomprehensible to me until he explained: closers generally come into the game when their team is already winning. To get credit for a win, the pitcher would have to allow the other team to tie the game (or go ahead), and still be the pitcher of record when his team comes back to win it later. This means that to get the win, you have to screw up your save opportunity. But if wins are bad for closers, how do you explain Henke’s 1989 season, where he went 8-3? Using this logic, 8 wins for a closer should be terrible but he had a 1.92 ERA and 20 saves, which ain’t bad. And Mariano Rivera, arguably the best closer in the history of the game, has had W-L records over .500 in 10 of his 15 complete seasons including two seasons with 7 wins and one with 8. Once again, we see that wins are meaningless.

There are other pitcher stats that don’t necessarily indicate the skill level of the pitcher – ERA for one. If you have Tony Fernandez and Roberto Alomar as your middle infield, you’re going to have a lower ERA (and possibly more wins!) than if you have just average defensive players there. If you have a catcher that throws out 95% of runners attempting to steal a base, you can concentrate more on the batter and less on the speedy guy on first because you know he’s less likely to run, and if he does your catcher will take care of him.

Similarly, RBIs are meaningless for hitters, because they depend greatly on who’s hitting ahead of you. If you’re the team’s cleanup hitter and the #3 hitter is having a bad season, you’re likely going to see your RBI total drop – not because you are having a bad season, but because someone else is. Or say the guy hitting in front of you last year was a great base stealer, but the guy hitting in front of you this year isn’t. Even if his OBP is about the same, you’re likely going to have a drop in RBIs as well, since the new guy will still be on first when the old guy would have been on second. Unless the new guy doesn’t have to steal bases because he gets more extra-base hits than the old guy, then you might get more RBIs. Unless a lot of those extra base hits are home runs, and then you might get less.

I suppose these types of things are the reasons they come up with new stats like OPS, WHIP, and ERA+, in the hopes of measuring a players skill level while attempting to filter out external influences. There is even an Adjusted OPS, which takes into account the park that the player plays his home games in, as does ERA+. Pretty soon you’re going to need a degree in statistics to be able to understand all these things.


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