With the Cy Young victories of Felix Hernandez last year and Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum in 2009, the emphasis formerly placed on wins when deciding the award has clearly been downgraded and with good reason. Hernandez beat out beat out C.C. Sabathia (21 wins), Jon Lester and David Price (19 wins apiece) last year. Mind you all three of them had much more than just gaudy win totals, but the only place they really thwarted Hernandez was with those wins, a stat that a pitcher has very little control of when you really consider everything.
It is almost as bad as assigning a win-loss record to a quarterback, who is one of 22 players (plus special teams). No doubt that a quality quarterback is essential to long-term success, but crediting or knocking a down a quarterback for successes or shortcomings of those around him on his offense, but also in the other two facets of the game is just plain ridiculous. It has become more commonplace to look at the aspects of the game a starting pitcher actually controls and judge him accordingly instead of hammering him for an inept offense that doesn’t support his quality outings or an inept defense that fails to turn poor contact into the outs it should become more times than not.
Of course one place that wins remain very important is the fantasy baseball landscape where the majority of leagues still use a standard 5×5 format that judges pitcher wins, strikeouts, ERA, WHIP and saves. Everyone remembers an instance or three where their guy gets knocked around for five earned runs in just over five innings yet pulls out a W because his offense came to play against a pitcher or pitchers more inferior than their own. That was the case with St. Louis Cardinals starter Kyle McClellan on April 28th of this year in Houston.
He gave up five on eight hits and two walks in five and two-thirds, but a nine run outburst in the sixth inning led by a 3-run home run from Lance Berkman not only took him off the hook for a loss, but put him in line for the win which he eventually “earned” as four relievers combined to yield just two more unearned runs the rest of the way. How often does that really happen, though?
Are starting pitchers scooping up wins left and right during bad performances because they have the good fortune to be going up against weaker teams while playing behind superior lineups? Or do we just remember a handful of incidences that either helped our team or worse, went against us and subsequently we make it out to be a bigger deal that is truly the case?
To the Play Index!
Looking at starting pitcher wins with 4+ earned runs so far this year (through July 27th) returns 97 results. Unsurprisingly the top two pitchers in this category are Sabathia and John Lackey with three apiece. Not unsurprising because of anything inherent about them as individuals, it could have just as easily been A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett, it’s unsurprising because of the beastly lineups that support both of them. The Yankees have 529 runs scored good for 3rd in baseball while the Red Sox are pacing all of baseball with 567.
The two arrived at these three wins in different ways. It would be hard to label any of Sabathia’s three wins as ill-begotten in that he went seven or more innings in all three including a complete game in one of them. No one is raving about a 5.14 ERA (4 ER in 7 IP), but you have to consider the context of all three. First of all, he had a 12-to-2 strikeout to walk ratio in the three games with just a single home run allowed. The eight hits allowed in each game could easily be BABIP noise when you come right down to it. The things in his control were dynamite by and large. Let’s look game-by-game for Sabathia:
- In the first game, the complete game, he was down 4-1 after four innings, but was pitching brilliantly by all accounts otherwise. He allowed just one extra-base hit of the eight and took just 103 pitches to go the distance. He battled Ricky Romero pitch for pitch and then his offense took care of the Blue Jays bullpen for four runs in the final two innings earning Sabathia a well-deserved win despite his 4.00 ERA in the game (which at that point in the season was well below league average, even in the AL).
- The second outing, on June 14th against Texas, saw Sabathia with a 6-0 lead after the second inning, 7-0 after three and 9-2 through four. Again he allowed just one double as the lone extra-base hit and while he ended the game with a 5.14 ERA, he pitched quite well including six strikeouts and zero walks. I don’t think many would find the win he received undeserving despite what is no doubt a ghastly ERA in a one game sample.
- The last of his games, June 19th against the Cubs, was by far the worst outing and the one where you could no doubt tab him as lucky to escape with a win because his offense gave him a slim one run lead that he held through seven before they exploded for three more in the eighth and ninth innings. Sabathia again went seven, but of his eight hits, this time there were three doubles and a home run while he struck out just three walking one other. His least deserving win of the bunch for sure, but he pitched well enough and still went seven innings in an era when some are praised for going five.
The point is here that all junk wins (junk in that the end game ERA is pretty ugly and their offense had more to do with the win than the pitcher in many cases) are not created equally and you shouldn’t immediately scoff at the notion of someone giving up 4+ earned runs and still garnering a victory.
Lackey had one ugly junk win in which he went the minimum five innings allowing six runs on seven hits and two walks striking out two others. A pretty terrible performance for his season debut, but lucky for him that Phil Hughes
bested “worsted” him by also giving up six runs on seven hits but lasting just two innings. In the his other two outings, he combined for a 13-to-2 strikeout to walk ratio in 14 innings allowing four in each outing. Had he allowed just three in the outings, they wouldn’t be looked upon so negatively, but that one extra earned run changes the perspective so much.
If you want a really ugly junk win, look at Jo-Jo Reyes‘ from July 14th against the Yankees when he went 5.3 innings and allowed seven runs on 10 hits and a walk while striking out just two and allowing two home runs yet still coming away with a win as the Jays bum-rushed Bartolo Colon for eight runs in the first inning. See what I mean about them not all being created equally? I used four runs as the cutoff because six innings and three earned runs is the baseline for a quality start. Of the 97 junk wins so far this year, 34 saw the pitcher allow 5+ earned runs while the other 63 were the baseline four. And of those 63, 51 of them saw the starter go 6+ innings.
Looking at the trend of 4+ earned runs allowed wins shows no significant trend one way or another. Last year was tabbed the Year of the Pitcher and thus it is hardly a surprise that it registered the lowest amount of such wins since 2007 including when you pace out this year’s total.
Of course, this year is supposed to be Year of the Pitcher, Part 2 so perhaps the pace will drop. Either way, it still well below the average of the previous four years. The win is so far from perfect, it’s not even funny and while its use in judging Cy Young candidates bothers me to no end, I’m far less worried about its usage in fantasy baseball. I think it has to do with the fact that this is a game and the parameters of this game determine the various paths to success that you can take and you have a lot of control over how you will try and succeed.
If your league counts wins, then you should value the better starting pitchers on the best offensive teams a bit more even if you like Seattle’s ace more. If you want to go the other route and draft skilled pitchers with lesser offenses backing them in hopes that the wins break their way more often than not when they “deserve” them, then that is another strategy and it will likely be cheaper, but also with higher risk. The fantasy game is a different universe than real baseball and while wins aren’t a great measure of a pitcher’s true skill, ERA isn’t necessarily one either, but you don’t see as many people clamoring to remove it from the game as you do with wins.
Meanwhile, a player’s career can be seriously impacted with season awards for better or worse and doling out those awards based on things that are out of their control is crazy. It could cost them a chance at the Hall of Fame or compensation bonuses. No matter how times proponents of removing wins from fantasy baseball spout some iteration of the phrase “this game is emulating or at least is meant to emulate the one on the field”, it doesn’t get any less untrue.
This game does little to mirror the game on the field. In a standard 12-team 5×5 league, you don’t set a 1-9 lineup, you don’t create a rotation and a bullpen and defense has zero value. So wins can be a part of the fantasy game without negatively affecting the integrity of said game. Everyone knows the rules ahead of time and they have all of or at least most of the season to strategize on how to best succeed within those rules. Hernandez couldn’t really pitch any better than he did last year and yet his supporting offense was historically awful and thus he was credited with just 13 wins. Put him on a mediocre offense and he probably pushes 20, let alone on a top offense where he may have been gunning for 25 late in September.
To abandon pitcher wins would be a major change to the game and we all know how scared people are of change. We are all used to playing the game this way so the overwhelming majority isn’t all of sudden going to go from standard 5×5 to a league with wOBA, wRC+, xFIP and SIERA overnight. Are there better options than wins? Quite possibly and I will examine one very soon.
Until then, I will happily accept some more Max Scherzer junk wins like the two he has gotten me this year despite allowing six and five earned runs in a pair of five inning outings because I need any win I can get in my very tight pennant race. Plus it means my Tigers won another game and they, too, are locked in a furious pennant battle.
By the way, 21 players have two or more junk wins this year: