Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Wins and losses and relief pitchers

We've made quite a bit of progress lately toward discounting the value of the "win" as a measuring stick for starting pitchers. Tim Lincecum won the Cy Young Award in the National League last season with just 15 wins, the lowest win total ever by a Cy Young winner in a non-strike season.

Some still make the argument that the job of a starting pitcher is to win games. A pitcher is told to take the ball and bring home a 'W,' and if he hasn't done so, he hasn't done his job. If he loses a 2-1 game, after all, the opposing pitcher did his job better than he did, sort of, except if the two runs he allowed came on errors or on inherited runs scored after he'd left the game.

(No one ever points out that the job of a catcher or a first baseman is to go out and win games, too. No one ever points out that Joe Mauer had a worse win-loss record -- 74-64 -- than Jason Varitek -- 62-47 -- or uses that information to draw any conclusions. That would be absurd, right? But that's another argument for another day.)

Relief pitchers, though, present an entirely separate problem. Relievers earn wins if their team happens to take the lead for good while they're pitching. If they give up the lead in the top half of the inning before their team takes it back in the bottom half? That's ineffective pitching, but that's also deserving of a credited "win."

Maybe this just is a pet peeve. Maybe, though, it's time to stop referencing win-loss records for relievers in the context of anything except meaningless trivia.

You see it everywhere. Here, in a story about Ramon Ramirez filing for arbitration. Here, in a story about Hideki Okajima agreeing to a one-year contract. Here, in a story about Jonathan Papelbon -- a closer, for goodness sake. The first statistic mentioned about each of the above pitchers in each of the above stories is his win-loss record -- something that's about as relevant in evaluating his performance as the name of his fourth-grade teacher.

The winningest Red Sox reliever last season was Ramirez, who finished with the exact same number of wins (seven) as Clay Buchholz and Brad Penny. Okajima wasn't far behind (six), and neither was Manny Delcarmen (five).

What does that tell you? Let's look at a handful of the wins earned by Ramirez last season:

1. On April 17 against Baltimore, Ramirez got Javier Lopez out of a jam in the sixth inning and set down the side in the seventh before running into trouble with a 10-8 lead in the top of the eighth. Cesar Izturis lined to left, but Brian Roberts and Adam Jones followed with back-to-back singles -- putting the tying run on base. Hideki Okajima then relieved Ramirez and retired Nick Markakis and Aubrey Huff to prevent the tying run from scoring.

2. On April 24 against New York, Ramirez pitched a scoreless inning -- just like Delcarmen, Lopez, Papelbon and Takashi Saito had before him. Ramirez even allowed two runners to reach before getting Melky Cabrera to ground into a double play. The difference? His happened to be the scoreless inning before Kevin Youkilis hit a walk-off home run.

3. On May 10 against Tampa Bay, Ramirez threw all of seven pitches, relieving Okajima in the eighth inning with the score tied and the bases empty and getting Ben Zobrist to ground to first. The Red Sox scored the go-ahead run in the bottom of the eighth, and Papelbon finished it out.

And so on.

Let's look at the leaderboard for wins among relievers in the American League last season:
1. Alfredo Aceves, 10 wins (3.54 ERA)
2. Craig Breslow, 8 wins (3.36 ERA)
3. Miguel Batista, 7 wins (4.04 ERA)
4. J.P. Howell, 7 wins (2.83 ERA)
5. Jason Frasor, 7 wins (2.50 ERA)
6. Jesse Crain, 7 wins (4.70 ERA)
7. Zach Miner, 7 wins (4.29 ERA)
8. Ramirez, 7 wins (2.84 ERA)

New York's Jonathan Albaladejo had five wins and a 5.24 ERA. Minnesota's Jon Rauch had five wins and a 1.72 ERA. There's even less correlation between wins and effective performance for relievers than for starters.

(ERA doesn't even tell the story as accurately as WHIP or opponents' OPS given how much inherited runners can skew the numbers. Again, though, that's an argument for another day.)

Maybe this is too harsh. Maybe it doesn't hurt anything to point out that a relief pitcher went 7-4 as long as his 2.84 ERA and 1.335 WHIP are included in the conversation.

On the other hand, saying, "He went 7-4 and had a 2.84 ERA" is just as relevant as saying, "He likes pepperoni pizza and had a 2.84 ERA." Actually, it's even less relevant: Whereas his 7-4 record has little to do with anything but outside factors, his affection for pepperoni pizza might actually affect his future performance.

(This writer, a fan of pepperoni pizza who currently is procrastinating on a trip to the gym, would know all about that.)

Though some are kicking and screaming along the way, many baseball fans and baseball writers now understand the way statistics like ERA and WHIP represent a far better measure of reliever performance than wins. The next step? Eliminating mention of reliever wins entirely.


Anonymous said...

5 (!!) of Aceves' wins were games in which the Yankees never lost their lead but the starter didn't finish five innings and Aceves relieved him and pitched 2 or 3.

(technically it's 6, but one of those the starter left the game with two outs in the first after getting hit with the ball, and Aceves pitched 3.1, actually earning that one)

utterly absurd. Wins should never be part of any arbitration argument for a starter, let alone a reliever--in fact, good closers often have lousy or even losing records because the only times they ever factor into decisions is if they blow it (Papelbon is 14-11 for his career, Trevor Hoffman is 59-68)

floydiansea said...

Somewhere, the gentlemen of FJM are standing and appluading this stand against 'the win,' the most overrated, overvalued, meaningless and unfair pitching statistic.

Unless they start counting spits.

Bravo, sir. Bravo.

Ross said...

So when drafting that reliver in the late rounds of fantasy this year.... is there a type of reliever who will more than likely be in a situation to earn a win? Aceves had some interesting situations. Is it the set-up man? The situational lefty?

Anonymous said...

@Ross--if your league values holds at all, take a situational lefty. Those guys rack up holds like nobody else