In Defense Of Pitcher Won/Loss Records

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - Former pitchers Bert Blyleven (L) and Jack Morris of the Minnesota Twins present Francisco Liriano #47 and catcher Drew Butera #41 of the Minnesota Twins with a plaque for Liriano's no hitter. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

You're right to think that anyone still using pitcher wins in 2011 to evaluate a player is a horrible, horrible person. But they aren't that bad. The wins, that is. The people using them are still horrible.

Justin Verlander won the Cy Young on Tuesday, although as Rob Neyer points out, he didn't necessarily pitch any differently than he has in past years. Once you factor in the park he played in, what happened with the balls that hitters put in play, and the number of runners allowed, you can make a strong argument that CC Sabathia had a, well, strong argument. But the voting wasn't close -- Verlander won unanimously. He had 24 wins, after all.

Roy Halladay and Clayton Kershaw had eerily similar seasons . Halladay had a 2.35 ERA and a 164 ERA+ over 233⅔ innings; Kershaw had a 2.28 ERA and 163 ERA+ over 233⅓ innings. Halladay walked fewer batters; Kershaw struck out more of them. It's a total coin flip in a lot of ways. But Kershaw is going to win on Thursday. He might win because of the strikeouts. But he'll probably win because of the pitcher wins. He had 21 of them compared to Halladay's 19. That's a kind of tiebreaker to the voters, if not a major component of their vote.

So you know what's coming. The 345,359th blogger-writes-furiously-about-stupid-old-statistics article that you've read in your life. The thing about those stupid old statistics that always gets me is how stupid and old they are, it's true. But I have a confession to make, and they might take my official nerd card* away when I make it. Here goes:

I kind of like pitcher wins.

You know what? I've lived like this long enough. Not going to hide from it anymore. I'm proud to kind of sort of almost like pitcher wins under the right circumstances when you squint. Proud, dammit. Because you know what I think when I read that Verlander had 24 wins last year? I think, "Dang. He probably had a nice season."

But more than that, pitcher wins are a stat packed with a ton of information. I know that Verlander probably didn't get roughed up a lot; I also know that the Tigers scored runs for him in his starts. I know that Tigers relievers didn't blow a lot of leads that Verlander might have left them. And I also know that Tigers fans felt pretty good after most of Justin Verlander's starts.

As a statistic on their own to evaluate Justin Verlander, or any other pitcher? Pitcher wins are pretty much garbage. They're the cave paintings of statistics. But as nuggets of compressed information that you unpack yourself, I kind of like them. When I see that Steve Trachsel or someone is cruising into August with a .700 winning percentage, I know that something's fishy. To the stat cave! When I see that a pitcher is near the top of FanGraphs' WAR board with a 1-7 record, it sends me to the pitcher's game logs.

Jim Scott pitched for nine seasons, from 1909 through 1917. He had a career 2.30 ERA in 317 games, with a 121 ERA+. He's ranked as the #435th-best pitcher in baseball history in the Baseball Reference Fan EloRater, just ahead of Steve Barber and Guy Bush. That doesn't tell me much. But when I see that his career record is 107-114, I know that he was one of the unluckiest pitchers in history.

Suddenly, a picture of his career forms in my head -- a bittersweet career of frustration, of good pitching on bad teams. A career where he waited for Ping Bodie or Biff Schaller to get the hit that would never come, where Pop-boy Smith was perpetually entrusted with a lead that he couldn't hold.

Pitcher wins are good for something. Kind of. Sort of. If you dig for a reason.

Here's the catch: wins are only interesting if you have other stats. Saying that a pitcher has 12 wins in a season is like saying that he's been to Paris once, but only on a layover -- completely meaningless and superfluous information that can only be interesting in the context of a longer, more involved story. Like "Denny Neagle has been to Paris once, but only on a layover, but he was still arrested." That sort of thing. And in the context of other statistics, a win total becomes a stat that gives you a rough idea of the pitcher's season, the team's season, the team's offense, and how the pitcher is perceived by the common yokels who can't even calculate xFIP in their heads.

I'm not expecting to convince a lot of folks. Used the way it is by some, pitcher wins are truly a blight. But if you know what you're doing, they're kind of neat. Well, not neat. Not completely awful. Sort of cool if you're feeling froggy. Something like that.


*It's just a Skyrim manual with some back-of-the-envelope WAR calculations on it, but it sure looks official

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