I saw an interesting box score last night. Click here for the box score of the Rockies win over the Reds. Thinking about the absurdity of the "win" and "loss" stats in baseball got me thinking once again about science and sports.
In physics, we concern ourselves with cause and effect. We want to understand why a hit baseball eventually returns to Earth just as must as we want to understand why an electron moves around the nucleus of an atom. Questions of why often involve a little philosophy because we use words like "gravity" and "electromagnetic force" to explain the baseball and the electron, respectively, even if we really don't understand what those interactions are. Richard Feynman once noted that we use the concept of "energy" all the time, but we really don't understand what energy is.
Perhaps we in science do better with how something works. We know how a baseball will move through the air because we have developed good models for gravity, air resistance, and the Magnus force that's responsible for a baseball curving. If we tuck philosophy under the rug, we feel good about our ability to describe why a baseball does what it does. We have a reasonable understanding of its motion (there are, however, still interesting questions to answer in the realm of baseball physics!).
Sabermetrics tries to understand the why in what happens in baseball. What can batters do as causes that best lead to the effect of runs on the scoreboard? What can pitchers do as causes that best lead to the effect of the opposing team not putting runs on the scoreboard? At the end of a game, the winner is determined by who has scored the most runs. How those runs were scored, be it by a bunch of home runs or via "small ball," is irrelevant.
Think about what a pitcher can control. He can strike out or walk a batter essentially all on his own. The manager or pitching coach might signal the catcher to signal the pitcher what pitch to throw and where to throw it, but the pitcher is the one who has to make the pitch. A pitcher can also give up a home run. The fielders can't do anything about a ball sailing into the stands. The pitcher can also pick runners off base and throw certain pitches that try to "induce" things like ground balls that might lead to double plays. Pitchers can also hit batters and throw wild pitches. But, really, a strikeout, a walk, and a home run are where the pitcher is most on his own. Everything else relies on the quality of the defense behind him, and subtle things like where managers have positioned the defense before a given player comes to bat also play a role. The bottom line is that a pitcher cannot "win" or "lose" a game all by himself; it's a team effort.
I am certainly not the first person to point out the absurdity of the "win" and "loss" stats in baseball. Though I've thought about it for more than two decades, this is the first time I've ever written about it in a public way. Many others have written on this topic, and much better than I will today. See, for example, what the great Joe Posnanski recently wrote by clicking here. Wins and loses might be fun stats and they have connections to baseball's storied past, but they do not say much about the cause and effect of what pitchers can do to prevent runs from being scored. As others have written, the "win" is not completely useless as a stat, especially over the length of a player's career. A pitcher who wins 300 games is a good (or great) pitcher, but the "win" stat doesn't tell the best story. Over the course of a long career, it might reveal some averaging over "tough luck" losses (say, 2-1) and "lucky" wins (say, 10-9). In the end, though, the career win total reflects how many games a pitcher pitched, how deep into games the pitcher was able to go (five innings needed for a starting pitcher to get a win), and how successful the pitcher's teams were. Greatness can be hidden from those who focus too hard on wins. Just click here to read what Rich Lederer has written since 2003 about the insanely long wait Bert Blyleven endured before getting the Hall of Fame call this past January.
Okay, back to last night's Rockies win over the Reds. Alex White got the "win" for the Rockies, despite giving up eight hits, seven runs (six of them "earned"), a walk, and FIVE HOME RUNS. He struck out just one batter. He got the "win" because (1) he pitched five innings and (2) the score was 8-7 Rockies after the fifth inning ended, and the Rockies never gave up the lead. As far as preventing runs goes, Alex White had an AWFUL game.
Who got the "loss" in last night's game? Was it Bronson Arroyo, who started for the Reds? He pitched just ONE inning and gave up seven hits, six runs (all eared), and struck out one batter. Giving up five home runs in five innings is bad, but Bronson Arroyo gave up THREE home runs and was the pitcher of record on just three outs. At least Alex White was the pitcher of record on 15 outs as he gave up seven runs. Arroyo did not, however, get the "loss" in last night's game. That went to Matt Maloney who pitched two innings and gave up two runs (one earned). Matt Maloney was unlucky enough to have pitched the fourth and fifth innings, meaning he was the "pitcher of record" when Colorado took the lead for good after five innings.
So, does Matt Maloney feel like the "loser" in last night's game? Does Alex White feel like the "winner" in last night's game? Bronson Arroyo pitched worse than anyone in that game, but he got the "no decision" because his offense kept his team in the game for the first five innings. Alex White was terrible for five innings, but his teammates scored enough runs to give him the "win." Of course, four Rockies pitchers came in after Alex White and pitched four shutout innings. Three of them settled for the wonderful "hold" stat. Bronson Arroyo was so bad that he could not contribute to more than three outs, but Matt Maloney pitched the wrong two innings and wound up with the "loss." At least he helped get six outs. Sam LeCure helped on just three outs while giving up two runs, and Aroldis Chapman gave up two runs and wasn't a part of a single out (he walked two batters and threw a wild pitch)!
Last night's game is certainly not an anomaly, and I'm not just cherry-picking a strange game to make the argument that a pitcher's "win" doesn't tell us much. Scan box scores every day and see if the "win" and the "loss" tell you much. C.C. Sabathia, for example, is a good pitcher, but he accumulates wins better than some pitchers because his team scores a lot of runs. Of his 19 wins, I count six games in which he gave up four or more runs. C.C. Sabathia is having a great year because he is pitching a lot of innings, has a great strikeout-to-walk ratio (216 K to 55 BB), doesn't give up the long ball (just 15 this year), and has a stellar 150 ERA+. The "win" total is high because C.C. Sabathia is not only a good pitcher, his team scores runs for him. Per nine innings, C.C. Sabathia gets 7.06 runs from his teammates, good enough for 13th in the American League. Don't fault C.C. Sabathia for his good run support, find his greatness in other, more meaningful, pitching stats.
Regarding last night's game in Colorado, I prefer to think that the Rockies got the "win" and the Reds got the "loss." The Rockies did, after all, score more runs than the Reds before their allotment of outs was used.