By TJ Horgan
Win. This is the all-encompassing word describing the apex of competition. However, does it accurately depict the talent level of the athletic elite who performing America’s pastime, every day, for nine months every year?
The starting pitcher in baseball is someone who players follow, fans revere (or detest), photographers capture, and with whom owners anchor a team. One pitch could galvanize an audience of 50,000 boisterous fans. Yet there is one thing a pitcher is constantly subject to, and that is judgement.
Any person with the privilege of being financially rewarded for physical gifts is often scrutinized. However, the scrutiny often stems inauspicious “evidence,” such as the “wins” statistic.
A pitcher achieves a “win” if they last pitched prior to the half-inning when the winning team took the lead for the first time. The most common exception to this is when a starting pitcher does not complete 4 ½ innings, as that is the minimum innings requirement needed to achieve a win.
Despite a team’s ultimate goal being to win the game, the win is an antiquated and irrelevant way to judge the talent of a pitcher.
From quick stat lines on television broadcasts, to hyperlinks on web pages with the pitcher’s picture and statistics, the win statistic is everywhere, and often the first numeral evaluation of a pitcher. It is a staple in the juxtaposed world of baseball analytics, and a symbol of the “old school” and “new school” argument.
My reasoning for arguing that the win should be completely removed from mainstream pitcher evaluations begins with the fact that a win is contingent upon a plethora of other factors, many of which are not even remotely controlled by the pitcher himself.
For example, an outfielder’s range can impact a game in a way which will fluctuate from pitcher to pitcher, outfielder to outfielder, and game to game. Raul Ibanez played 824 and ? innings in left field for the Seattle Mariners in 2013, which led the Mariners for innings played at that position. Ibanez is 41 years of age, and had more time in the field than any player over the age of 40 by a substantial margin.
Obviously, a 41 year-old player is slightly slower, less limber, and less agile than, say, Boston’s Shane Victorino (32). The statistics corroborate this, as Ibanez scored a -17.1 in Ultimate Zone Primer (UZR). This statistic encompasses a fielder’s range, in respect to ability to fielding a ball in any specific location.
Shane Victorino scored a 24.0 with UZR. Ibanez tallied the worst UZR among all players in the MLB with at least 800 innings, while Victorino sat at fourth place. Fielding discrepancies such as this are not accounted for in wins.
There were 45 players with more wins in 2013 than Felix Hernandez, Seattle’s best pitcher. Had Raul Ibanez been moderately more agile, a fly ball to left-center field may have been caught for an out, instead of dropping, and scoring 3 runs.
Jon Lester, on the other hand, Boston’s “ace” tallied 15 wins on the 2013 season. According to fangraphs.com, Victorino saved 24 defensive runs last year. That equates to one run saved every 6.75 games. Defensive metrics are highly underrated and can often be used to justify a pitcher’s low (or high) win total.
Hernandez placed fifth in terms of FIP, Fielding Independent Pitching, which is calculated using home runs, strikeouts, walks, batters hit, and other “fielding-independent” statistics. Lester finished 41st in terms of FIP.
Is it fair to depreciate the value of Felix Hernandez because Raul Ibanez is an incompetent fielder? Of course it’s not. Is it fair to say Jon Lester is an “ace” or “shut down” pitcher because Shane Victorino can run, catch, and throw better than most players? Of course it’s not. That is why wins should never surface on a remedial stat-sheet or glance at a pitcher, and metrics such as FIP should.