Every November, after a gruelling 162-game regular season and an intense postseason, Major League Baseball awards its athletes in both the American and National Leagues with various accolades. Most Valuable Player, Silver Slugger Award, and the Gold Glove Award make up a few of the prestigious honours that can crown a player’s season. Meanwhile, pitchers are fixated on one specific achievement, the Cy Young Award, which recognizes one pitcher as the best of the season as determined by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA).
Last year, Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello won the award over the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander and Cleveland Indians’ Corey Kluber. The manner in which the BWAA voted sparked a controversy, though, because of inconsistencies between ranked-ballot votes for Porcello and Verlander. The Red Sox pitcher received eight first place votes, while Verlander received 14 but was completely removed from two of the ballots.
When each pitcher’s individual statistics are broken down and further examined, it becomes apparent that there’s a brazen discrepancy between what the BWAA aims to reward and the way in which the selections are determined. Last year’s voting illuminated a problem with modern pitching sabermetrics: the importance the win-loss record holds far outweighs the information that the statistic actually encapsulates.
Baseball is an analytical game — managers and fans alike act as statisticians to make sense of a player’s success or struggles. The win-loss statistic is one that applies solely to pitchers: a pitcher is awarded the win if he was the last to pitch before the winning team took the lead for the final time. It’s a divisive statistic because it says very little about a pitcher’s abilities yet holds a lot of weight when it comes to discussing performance. In 2016, Rick Porcello ended the regular season with 22 wins and four losses, whereas Justin Verlander went 16 and nine.
There is a continuing trend of prioritizing a pitcher’s win-loss record over other, more complex and telling statistics. Maybe it’s because the win-loss record is straightforward, but the dissonance is staggering between wanting to accurately characterize a pitcher via his stats and relying so heavily on wins and losses. As soon as the baseball community collectively labels a pitcher’s winning record as obsolete, there will be more integrity and fairness in deciding who excelled in a season.
It is necessary to determine what attributes makes a pitcher stand out from his peers: value to his team is not mutually inclusive with talent. Performance can be quantified by Earned Run Average (ERA), for example, which denotes how many runs a pitcher allows on average in his outings. Strikeouts are another good measure of success.
To quantify value, however, Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is the best statistic to look to since it indicates how many of the team’s wins were brought solely by the pitcher. A Quality Start (QS) is also a viable option, recorded when a pitcher allows three runs or less, and serves as a constructive statistic since it incorporates a pitcher’s command and control on a given night.
But to truly discredit win-loss statistics, it’s crucial to discuss run support, the average number of runs a pitcher receives from his team. In 2016, Porcello had a Major League leading 6.53 runs in support of him per outing, whereas Verlander only had 3.97. To further exemplify: in 2013, the AL Cy Young winner, then-Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, ended the season with 21 wins while, on average, his team scored him 5.59 runs. Second place Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish had only 13 wins, partly because of his 4.28 run support. There is a strong correlation between high run support and more wins, which should effectively delegitimize the statistic from its pedestal, yet no such demotion has taken place quite yet.
On August 15 of 2016, when the Toronto Blue Jays’ R.A. Dickey faced the New York Yankees, the knuckleballer pitched five strong innings, giving up only one run — an uncharacteristic feat for the right hander who often struggles with his command. Toronto went on to lose 1-0 that night and Dickey collected the loss. However, in a game only two months prior, on June 25, Dickey gave up four runs against the Chicago White Sox, and still collected the win in a 10-8 Blue Jays’ victory. In neither outing was his performance rightfully rewarded, yet games such as these happen every night and are the basis for the existence of a pitcher’s record.
There is no question about it: based on his statistics, Verlander deserved the 2016 Cy Young Award. And so begs the question: if analytics hold the most importance come awards season, how could such an act of larceny be committed against Verlander?
Porcello, who had a higher ERA, a lower WAR, and less quality starts and strikeouts, rode his league-leading 6.53 run support to finish the year with 22 wins and crown his five-and-a-half months of play with one of baseball’s most prestigious awards.
Though not as controversial, it is arguable that former Dodgers pitcher Zack Greinke was in a similar situation as Verlander in 2015, when he came second to the Cubs’ Jake Arrieta in the Cy Young vote. Despite having the league’s lowest ERA for a starting pitcher and having the most quality starts in the MLB, Greinke’s 19-win season did not seem as accomplished as Arrieta’s 22. Arrieta can thank his teammates for that — since their 4.18 run support was substantially larger than his competitors.
Baseball has always been a game oozing with logic and rationality; its fields are geometric and its rules are philosophical, so it’s quite ironic that the league uses so little logic when it comes to sabermetrics. Aside from hockey goalies, no other sport assigns individual players a win or a loss — so why place so much importance on a pitcher’s record? If a pitcher is only as good as his battery mate, why not assign the outcome of the game to the catcher as well? These are all questions that shouldn’t just plant the seed of doubt when it comes to the discussion of the integrity of wins and losses — they should water the seed until it grows into green, soft stadium grass.
Verlander’s loss in 2016 and Greinke’s in 2015 prove that a pitcher’s abilities and accomplishments lie far beneath the surface-level wins and losses. As soon as the MLB, and baseball more broadly, divorces itself from records and begins to rely on more complex and cogent pitching statistics, both criticism and praise will become drastically more justified.