CBS' reporter/rumormonger Jon Heyman posted an oddly defensive column today about Max Scherzer and pitcher wins. This is not the first column of the season to advocate giving the Cy Young award to Scherzer for his (so far) 19-1 season, nor even the first to go through a tortured attempt at reasoning that boils down to, "Yeah, we know pitcher wins don't matter, but Scherzer has a lot of them so yes, they do." What's strange here is the sheer amount of pandering toward the stats-minded win-denying crowd in what one suspects will be a vain attempt to avoid reaping the Twitter whirlwind. I count seven such capitulations in the space of this single entry, three of them crediting "stat guys/the stats set/the stat set" (clearly self-identified "stat guys" need to get together and come up with some kind of definitive moniker lest we get "stats dudes," "stats bros" and "stats homies" in some future column):
1. "Wins do matter (though clearly not nearly as much as we once thought -- and I give the stat guys credit for pointing this out.)"
2. "It's fair and right that the value of win totals and winning percentages for starters has been greatly diminished over the years (we long ago knew they didn't necessarily mean so much for relievers), and that's OK."
3. "The historic record no longer guarantees he's a runaway winner -- fairly -- but it still says something about his season."
4. "The stat set has made its point, and it was a good one. Starters' wins ain't what they used to be. There are a lot better numbers to illustrate a pitcher's performance over a season than wins and losses."
5. "Wins clearly aren't among the better stats to determine a pitcher's performance, that's fair to say. And yes, give the stat set credit for pointing that out years ago."
6. "So no, wins aren't close to the perfect measure."
7. "Yes, there is a lot of luck involved in getting pitcher wins."
That's a hell of a lot of "Please, don't hit me" for a single column. Now, we all know how Twitter can get sometimes, and if a fellow writer wants to duck some abuse I certainly empathize. We've long since passed the point where stating an unpopular opinion was a safe thing to do if you don't have the skin like a rhino. So few of us do, myself included. But insofar as the argument itself, it's redolent of special pleading. In effect, Heyman is saying, "Yes, I concede your point about wins, but Scherzer has so many of them that we should overlook the fact that you're right." Somehow, having a lot of wins and just one loss overturns all other reasoning.
To his credit, Heyman makes some effort to defend that position. However, it's unnecessary in this instance because he is right, or at least as close to right as one can be in what is ultimately a subjective situation. He just isn't right for the reasons he thinks he is. And whereas I don't have a special hotline to the "stats guys" or the "stats set" (much as with Monty Python's "Judean People's Front" and "People's Front of Judea," these appellations may designated distinct sects), I suspect he's jousting with a straw man.
The simple reason for that wins or not, Scherzer has had a very good year, one of the best in the American League if not the best. That he has a historically unusual win-loss record is nice in a decorative way, like a buttercream flower on a birthday cake. It still doesn't necessarily indicate a great deal by itself. Slight digression: One of my favorite dead-guy players is Johnny Allen, a right-hander who pitched primarily with the Yankees and Indians in the 1930s. I like him for several reasons:
- You know that clichéd baseball story, the one about the grizzled scout rolling into some dingy hotel in the middle of the night and the bellhop says, "Say, mister. I can pitch a little?" The scout is appropriately skeptical but figures, "What the heck, might as well see him throw a few?" That's actually how Allen was discovered.
- He was, shall we say, colorfully temperamental. Allen was pitching for the Dodgers in 1941 when an umpire called a balk on him. He snapped completely -- manager Leo Durocher had to pry his fingers from around the umpire's neck.
- He once walked off the field in the middle of a start because the umpire wouldn't let him pitch with sleeves that he had cut into ribbons.
- Most germane to this article: He tended to Scherzer-like records.
In his rookie year, Allen went 17-4; his .810 winning percentage led the American League. In 1937, he went 15-1. He started out the season 15-0 and picked up the one loss by losing 1-0 on a run that scored due to an error by his third baseman -- who he tried to kill, naturally. His .938 winning percentage is still one of the best of all time.
They didn't have a Cy Young Award back then, but if they had Allen wouldn't have gotten it. We know because they did have the Most Valuable Player award, and though Allen did garner a few votes in his best seasons, he never came close to winning. The voters of the day were able to recognize that although Allen's records had the curiosity value, pitchers like Lefty Grove, Lefty Gomez, and Red Ruffing were putting up better years. Similarly, no one did cartwheels when lefty junkballer Tom Zachary went 12-0 as a swingman for the 1929 Yankees, or Freddie Fitzsimmons went 16-2 for the 1940 Dodgers or Roy Face went 18-1 (until now the best of all time) out of the pen for the 1959 Pirates, or David Cone went 20-3 for the 1988 Mets. For all their ignorance and their almost total lack of stats guys/sets/gangs/posses, they understood there were other things going on. We, apparently, don't know that, or have forgotten.
In our case, one thing we probably don't keep in mind enough is that whereas the modern reliance on bullpens makes it harder for pitchers to roll up big win totals, it also makes it harder for them to lose. One suspects that if Walter Johnson was allowed a good bullpen and encouraged to leave the game after seven innings he would have had a few 19-1s of his own.
Throw aside Scherzer's record and you still have a season that, while short of other league-leading statistics, is about as good as that of any other pitcher on the circuit, with high rankings in most of the important performance categories. Felix Hernandez, Anibal Sanchez, Yu Darvish, Chris Sale, Hiroki Kuroda, among others, are having very good years, but can we say with certitude that they've been better than Scherzer? No, we can't. Even for those who do subscribe to WAR (as well you should), we should remember that the statistic is an approximation and cannot be taken literally. Sale, Scherzer, Hernandez, and Darvish are separated by fractions of a win, which is to say they're not separated at all. Is Sale the best pitcher in the AL this year? Yes. Is Hernandez? Yes. Is Scherzer. Scher -- er, sure.
Given the toss-‘em-in-a-hat nature of this year's contenders, there really isn't a reason to defend one's choice at all. "It was a tough choice and ultimately I picked one" should be good enough, assuming things are still knotted after the final month of the season. As long as you don't vote for Wade Davis, no man can gainsay you.
That's still not a reason to make recourse to pitcher wins as a rationale. Citing Scherzer's record as a voting rationale is like saying that The Matrix is a better picture than Citizen Kane because "Me like pretty colors," or that the prefab office building down the block is a more impressive feat of architecture than, say, Fallingwater because it's bigger. In his post today, Heyman gave seven reasons why Scherzer's W-L record is the least descriptive thing about his season. You should listen to Heyman, but then, so should Heyman. If he did, maybe he wouldn't feel the need to get into that defensive crouch.