Sunday, May 17, 2015

Why a Pitcher's W/L Record Matters

Danville, Kentucky – Pitching might be one of the most difficult feats in any sport. And I mean, pitching, not throwing or hurling or lobbing. In its highest forms, pitching is an art, like Godfather II or a well-prepared order of Fire-grilled Corn Guacamole at Chili’s

Done poorly, pitching can drive good baseball fans to the bottle. I should know.

It was June of 1972. My junior year at Danville High. Semi-finals of the State Championship tournament. It was one of those cool, drizzly evenings, which are so common in early summer in beautiful Kentucky. My stuff was sharp. My curveball had more bite than my basset hound Barry Goldwater, and my splitter sunk quicker than my bank account after letting my second wife use my credit card at IKEA. My fastball touched 86 miles per hour on the radar gun, and I’ve been told the gun was cold that night.

My mortal nemeses from Boyle County High were off-balance all night, confused and bewildered like the type of folk you meet when you spend all afternoon drinking margaritas at On The Border. They couldn’t touch my fastball, and the splitter had them flailing at the dirt like a lobotomized golfer.

A few hours later, I strutted off the mound like a champ, pumping my fist as the crowd went wild. My no-hitter that night led Danville High to finals of the State Championship tournament.

I did what every pitcher is supposed to do – put the team on my back. Baseball is a team game, but it’s also a game of individual glory, and individual defeat. It’s a game of Gatorade showers, but also a game of throwing your glove down in frustration as an opposing batter takes you yard and struts around the bases to rub it in.

But these days, nerds want to deny pitchers the glory and responsibility that accompanies their efforts. Using stats like FIP and DRA, they try to remove the lofty burden that every pitcher shoulders when he toes the rubber, by putting things “in context.” Not only that, some nerds have suggested we abandon referencing the pitcher’s W/L record altogether, going so far as to say it is an “obsolete statistic” that needs “to be packed up and left in the clubhouse before the next game.” Other factors, like team defense and run support, make a pitcher’s Win/Loss record deceiving, they claim.

I’d strenuously disagree with this attempt to downplay a pitcher’s W/L record. Pitcher Wins and Losses are what quite literally separate the winners from the losers. Always has been, always will. As a kid in Danville in the 1960s, the pitcher’s W/L record was how the neighborhood youngsters and I chose which games to attend. If Jimmy Maloney, winner of 23 games in ’63 and 20 games in ’65 (great years), was on the mound, the hype was palpable, and you could bet I was begging my mom for my allowance so that I could get to the game. It was Maloney Day, which meant that more likely than not, the Cincinnati Reds (or Red Legs, if you’re old-fashioned like me) would win and everyone would go home happy and stay happy, at least until dad started drinking. Many fans still continue this tradition by celebrating Harvey Day and undoubtedly Kershaw Day and Scherzer Day as well. They continue this tradition, because a pitcher’s job is to find a way to win at all costs. If your pitcher isn’t getting W’s, your team won’t get W’s. Simple as that.

Nerds unreasonably object that there’s more to a W/L record than just the pitcher, claiming that run support matters, and so does the quality of the team’s defense. They use these arguments to make excuses for losers like Corey Kluber who play for irrelevant teams and struggle to put the team on their back like I did in 1972. They’ll whine: “but Will, look at Kluber’s FIP, or Cleveland’s UZR! It’s not his fault he hasn’t won any games!” Yet, a big part of the Indians’ (predictable) struggles has been the fact that they are 1-7 when ol’ Kluber takes the mound. Not only did Kluber fail to record a W in any of his first 7 starts, his team lost all 7 of those games. Not all of these losses can be laid at the feet of the rest of the team. If Cleveland’s defense is bad, Kluber should pick up his teammates by refusing to let opposing batters make contact, and indeed, it appears as though the 2015 Indians roster is actually built around this philosophy. At some point, an ace should pitch like an ace, and win like an ace, without any excuses.

Proof of Kluber's lack of fortitude.
The buck has to stop somewhere. A pitcher’s record accurately answers the question: “does your team have a good shot at winning any given game with this guy on the mound?” If a great pitcher has no run support, then they will put up zeroes if they are truly mentally and physically primed to win.

A true winner admits when they’ve lost. Veteran pitchers own up to their losses, even close losses where their teammates go missing like that child support I keep forgetting to pay.

Let’s return to October of 2013 for proof. The matchup: Jon Lackey of the Boston Red Sox and Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers, owner of the record for most strikeouts (22) thrown in an ALDS series, and Autumnal God known for dominating post-season performances. 

Verlander single-handedly preventing Oakland from advancing in the post-season.
Yet, when Verlander was out-pitched and lost Game 3 of the ALCS by a 1-0 score, Justin didn’t blame his lack of run support. He didn’t blame the Tigers DRS numbers, even with traffic cones manning 3 of 4 infield positions and at least 1 outfield spot. Unlike my ex-wife, he didn’t make a scene in front of the kids and accuse hard-working men of being unmotivated losers. He put the blame on himself:

Q: How do you avoid not being really frustrated with pitching as well as you did and having your team lose?

JV: Obviously it’s tough, you want to win every time you take the mound. Obviously, to give my team a chance to win today, I would’ve had to throw up all zeros and I wasn’t able to do that.

(his full comments can be seen in a video located here)

In three post-season starts that autumn, Verlander gave up 1 run. But that one run was the difference between a Win and a Loss. That type of failure deserves to be measured in a W/L record, even if the difference between success and failure was one pitch. Anybody who has actually played the game would agree.

FIP might tell us how a pitcher would perform in an idealized world without humans with flaws and shortcomings playing defense, but it will never measure the presence of mind and toughness that separates the winners from the Klubers. The FIP crowd won’t be happy till we call off the season and just simulate all 162 games on my nephew’s Nintendo. Baseball isn’t played in FIP/Nintendo world, it’s played by humans who bleed and bruise and falter and sometimes even manage to win in spite of all these things.

For the pitchers who do manage to put their team on their back, they deserve to have a W next to their name in the box-score.