Kill the #KillTheWin debate

Duane Burleson

The pitcher win is a silly, mostly useless statistic. So what?

This is a crude distinction, but it works for our purposes here: there are sports fans who want to know things, and those who don't. Maybe more precisely, there are creatures of faith and weighted instances -- intangibles and hearts and rings and clutch, forever and ever amen -- and there are those who exalt reason and disdain all the circumstantial stuff in the preceding parenthetical from the very bottom of their beings. The two sides argue without any real hope of a resolution, and without any significant animus. The pushing and pulling is the thing. We've been over this.

People are people and fans are people, and people are ridiculous. And mostly we're all here in the middle, knowing only as much as we want to know, and not nearly as much as we think we do. This whole silly thing plays out with higher stakes elsewhere in the culture, and while Shouting About Statistics isn't global warming or macroeconomics, it can mirror, joylessly and not a little sadly, the glum, loud partisanship that political media brings to those debates. This isn't the most fun way to talk about or enjoy sports, it seems like, but it's play-fighting, for the most part. We mostly all know enough to know when not to care.

So we know, probably, that MLB Network commentator Brian Kenny's multi-front campaign to #KillTheWin is at bottom not serious or worth feeling all that much about. Yes, the win is a silly stat -- supremely contingent and arbitrary on its own, worse as some sort of totemic be-all thing. Which, of course, is not a thing that it is to anyone who cares to know anything. Which Brian Kenny, who knows a bunch of things, surely knows. Here are the two sides needling each other across some dim DMZ again. "There are lots of pundits who will use big national platforms to troll statheads, and very few who will use numbers to troll on their behalf," Tim Marchman writes at Deadspin. "Kenny, in this reading, is just filling a niche."

This reading makes a lot of sense, if only because it's palpable even in the responses-to-the-contrary that no one can quite give a shit about this. Kenny is smart and a professional and as it happens also mostly right about the win's silliness, and he sells hard, but he clearly knows how little this matters -- how little the debate matters, and also how little the win really matters.

This is even more palpable when an establishment type such as Jon Heyman (for instance) makes his pitch for the win's importance, and does so with all the vigor of a pro wrestler awakened very late at night and asked to cut a promo. He's a pro, too, and knows the words and hits his glowering carriage returns on time. But there is a profound sense that somebody would really like to go the hell back to bed.

Which, given that we are arguing about a century-old baseball statistic that most everyone knows is at the very least not the most telling or revealing or indicative metric out there, is actually a pretty reasonable response. It's a long season. We all can use the rest. And yet.

***

The good news is that no one is making anyone else care about or value wins, or any other statistic. Scott Boras is free to have his team put together one of their Famous Glossy Binders for his next dubiously deserving free agent client, and the people reviewing those binders are free to be like, "Wow, 13 wins, awesome point" and then laugh and laugh and laugh. (Off topic: I will pay real money to see the binder Boras passed to Omar Minaya on behalf of Oliver Perez in 2009.) They are free, too, to say that in a different tone and drop $36 million on the barrelhead and oh man, Omar Minaya.

More to the point, all statistics are finally like this. There are your more useless un-complex statistics -- Runs Batted In, all silly and contextual -- and your useful un-complex statistics like strikeouts, which are telling because they are just what they are. There are good complex stats -- Wins Above Replacement, which includes everything, exists in dynamic context, and is improving -- and opaque and ridiculous ones, like football's hilarious Passer Rating, arguably the worst and most goofily scientistic statistic ever to be mostly ignored, because of how awful and impenetrable it is.

Which, again, is the thing. No baseball fan mentions Quality Starts, another silly and unpopular statistic, except to note how silly it is that some low-quality effort by a starting pitcher qualifies as a Quality Start. These are tools in a box, and some are not good tools; some are ungainly oblong wrenches adjustable only in micrometers and covered in ants. Statistics are a thing to use or not use, a way for us to understand (or not) and enjoy (or not) our games more, and the easiest way to avoid ones you don't like is to, you know, avoid ones you don't like.

And while Brian Kenny and his acolytes are not really trying to get wins expunged from the game, the rhetoric used to communicate that this is A Cause Worth Fighting For is sourly false and theatrical in a recognizable way. It is, as Marchman writes and anyone can sense, the same queasy manufactured outrage found on cable news, or on ESPN at its giddy, trolling worst. Which is just not anything worth emulating, and not just because it's no fun.

The huff-and-puff fakery of Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith pretending to give two passionately opposed shits about the Jets quarterback situation is lame, of course. And if the reflexive resistance of anti-stat revanchists reflect a specific cultural perversity -- the belief that every problem can be solved by shouting NO as loudly as possible -- then the fetishization of advanced stats and econometric abstraction does, too. If the former is basic Fox News grumpery, then the latter collapses on TED Talk-ish self-congratulation, a more contemporary vision of enlightenment for a dressed-down elite that spends a lot of time saying "disruption" aloud with an implied hashtag. (Kenny refers to his acolytes as The Intelligentsia.)

None of this is great, obviously, but those who want to understand things through stats can do so. Still, there's also something corrosive in it, and something sad about seeing the insulting false binaries and reflexive ill will of cable politics complicating and souring a conversation that is, at bottom, an expression of enjoyment and happy interest. The numbers only matter if we say they do.

For other matters possibly pertaining to Max Scherzer, please visit Bless You Boys

And so, no, the win is not a good statistic. It doesn't tell us very much at all on its own, and it doesn't necessarily mean much more than This Pitcher Pitched At Some Point During A Team Win. But it's not useless as a part of understanding a bigger thing, in context and in concert with other things.

Matt Harvey was, for most of the season, the best pitcher in the National League; he was employed by a self-thwarting team that seemed especially so when he was pitching. As a Mets fan, I know this and have the wince-lines to prove it. But there are numbers for this, too. Count Harvey's 191 strikeouts (over 178.1 innings) or calculate his 0.93 WHIP, and you see something. Harvey's Fielder Independent Pitching (FIP) mark of 2.00 shows how good he was, and when taken alongside his 2.27 ERA says something about the Mets, too. But that Harvey made 26 starts and finished 9-5 also both suggests and demonstrates something.

It says something about the silly contingency of wins, sure, but it also says something about how Harvey's season actually went. Take it along with the rest and it helps us know something. It's not complete or perfect information; it only has meaning in context, and even that meaning is qualified. It's an imperfect part of an incomplete whole. What else could or should a number be?

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