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January 21, 2014 at 6:04 pm ET
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It’s 2014. We’re STILL Talking About Wins?

Earlier this year, I got wind of a twitter exchange by resident B & C Pirate Fan Andy Smith with another baseball internet scribe about wins.

The other scribe was still saying that WINS, of all things, are of great value in determining a pitchers’ worth, because of Ron Guidry in 1978 (the guy is a pure Yankees blogger), and maybe Steve Carlton in 1972, and reasons and thinking and stuff.

Man, before I could type out NOLAN RYAN 1987 and left that all over the scene of the crime, I paused.

That season is the equivalent of the Guidry 1978 for “wins are an antiquated, arbitrary and meaningless” measure.

No, I had to go deeper.

Yeah, Guidry went 25-3 in 1978, but heck, any metric of overall pitching value would put that season among the elite. Same with Carlton 1972. But Guidry’s half season in 1987 (5-8, 3.67) was pretty decent as well, all things into consideration (2.5 WAR for a half season).

Pitching is a skill that’s very luck dependent. Unless you strike everyone out, you’re at the mercy of the other eight guys in the field making plays behind you. Sometimes, you make it easy on them (Randy Jones, take a bow), and sometimes you’re a pitcher with horrible outfield defense behind you (most every Mariners pitcher last year). Since you can’t give errors when people don’t even come CLOSE to the ball, those balls in play that are outs if the defense was competent become black marks against you.

Same with singles being played into doubles (or Incaviglia-ed into triples or worse). That’s not REALLY the pitchers fault, but it happens.

So pitching metrics aren’t flawless by any measure and even FIP or other measures have some flaws, because some pitchers do help their defense and you can’t totally erase it (again, Randy Jones). No pitching metric is perfect.

But wins…

Wins…

Hugh Mulcahy had the sobriquet “Losing Pitcher Mulcahy”. He wasn’t an exceptional pitcher by any means. The war took out most of his prime seasons. He also happened to pitch for the Phillies, a team that where ‘woebegone’ would be a step up for them, thus the nickname. (Wags hung it on him after seeing that on the teletype one too many times. Also, “Wags” is a great nickname for ‘alleged sportswriter experts who are drunk”).

We don’t have full data for a deep metric dive, so ERA is about the best we can do for most of his career, but his ERA wasn’t great for many years. Of course, the Phillies could barely walk and chew gum at the same time, so no one really knows how many balls in play his fielders turned into hits. His 4.61 ERA in 1938 was no doubt hurt by a defense that had a DWAR of -6.7. Yeah, that’s horrid.

In 1940, Mulcahy went 13-22 with a 3.60 ERA. He had an ERA+ of 108 and a WAR of 2.6. His teammate Kirby Higbe went 14-19 with similar stats (3.72 ERA and 105 ERA+).

The team’s defense was awful, the bullpen was bad, and the offense heinous. How the hell are those guys supposed to win games? To hell with Guidry’s 1978, what about the value of these guys?

On every team, there are pitchers whose W/L belies their value, and one where W/L overstates it. Relievers, of course, are the prime target, but even on the 1978 Yanks, Jim Beattie went 6-9 as a league average pitcher (for the most part). Catfish Hunter went 12-6 with stats that were very similar to Beattie. And W/L is a good indicator?

“Blah, blah, game situation, the will to win, pitching to the score..” Save it. Beattie and Hunter were basically the same pitcher that year. One went 6-9, the other 12-6. Because of luck, happenstance and circumstance.

W/L can even overstate the value of a truly horrific season. Jason Bere’s 1995, where he had a 7.19 ERA, an ERA+ of 63, and a WAR of -2.0, left him with only a 8-15 record. His teammate, Wilson Alvarez, went 8-11 with an ERA+ of 104.

It’s really time to move beyond the win for any meaningful evaluation of pitchers seasons, past and present. Even in the days of olde, pitchers had records that overstated and understated their values. Now, with advanced metrics, we can get a much better handle on how good a pitcher is.

And maybe, just maybe, guys saddled with rotten teams like Mulcahy won’t be tabbed “Losing Pitcher” unjustly.

 

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