Max Scherzer is the frontrunner for the AL Cy Young, but his 19-3 record shouldn't have anything to do with the reason why.
If you're reading this column, you've already made up your mind about what is becoming an increasingly controversial baseball statistic: the pitcher win.
Either you think awarding a win to a pitcher is a basic and necessary act that is not to be underrated or overlooked and obviously belongs as a longstanding tradition of America's Pastime, or you think that's all a bunch of phooey.
In case you can't tell from reading the headline, yours truly is camped out on the latter side of the argument while wrapped in a warm, comfy sleeping bag (because, hey, this hasn't just been a one-night camp-out).
What's funny about this divisive debate on the merit (or lack thereof) of wins is that each side pretty much thinks the other has lost.
But here's hoping to open a forum for discussion about the pitcher win and why it—gasp—should not be a part of the criteria when determining how good a season a hurler has had, especially when it comes to voting for the annual Cy Young Awards in the American and National Leagues. If you believe otherwise, that's fine—you can have your say in the comments. But for now, at least, try going into things with an open mind.
Let's start with a blind resume, shall we? Going by the numbers laid out below, which pitcher would you say has had the better season in 2013?
You'll notice there's no "Wins" column, which we'll get to in a sec.
What you should see, though, is that there's exactly no difference in innings pitched by Pitcher A and Pitcher B and extremely minimal—even trivial in some cases—disparities in every other category listed. The most noticeable difference is probably in fielding independent pitching (FIP), where Pitcher B holds about a half-run edge.
If forced to choose, which one would you pick? Maybe you're leaning toward Pitcher B for his slightly better rates in everything except for walks per nine innings. But it's a pretty darn close call, right? The point here is that the numbers in the table above—the one sans wins—should have made you think on things, maybe even a little differently than you're used to.
OK, here's where we tell you that Pitcher A is Chris Sale of the Chicago White Sox and Pitcher B is none other than Max Scherzer of the Detroit Tigers, who has been the lock-him-up-and-throw-away-the-key favorite to be the AL Cy Young winner since midseason.
In case you're wondering, Sale is sporting an unsightly 11-13 mark because he plays for a White Sox team that currently owns the third-worst record in baseball through Tuesday. (And by the way, Sale's stats would've looked a whole lot better had this story been just a few days ago, before he got knocked around by the Cleveland Indians on Sunday.)
Scherzer, on the other hand, has been celebrated for having a historic season, what with his 19-1 record through the month of August, which made him only the third pitcher ever to win 19 of his first 20 decisions. (Roger Clemens did so in 2001 and Rube Marquard did it in 1912). While the Tigers right-hander has since lost two more to drop to 19-3, that really doesn't make his 2013 any less remarkable.
Other than that fun, little factoid that places Scherzer's successful season into historical context, what he's done this year is simply not about the wins. Heck, even Scherzer himself will tell you that, which is exactly what he did for Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated after he became the first pitcher since Clemens in 2001 to start out a season 13-0:
Everybody else seems like they want to just (use) the wins stat, when it's probably the most fluky stat of all pitching stats... I don't judge my season so far, how I've pitched, on 13-0... I judge it on a lot of other things I've been able to do. I've cut down my walks. I'm generating swing-and-misses. I'm pitching deep into games. I'm executing with four pitches. Everything else tells me I'm pitching well, not because I'm 13-0.
Imagine that: The favorite to take home the award for best pitcher in his league—in part because he has an MLB-high 19 wins—is actually saying he thinks wins are—how'd he put it again? Oh yeah, fluky.
If only Bartolo Colon had argued as much (and against himself) when he won an AL-high 21 games on his way to the Cy Young Award in 2005.
But we've come a long, long way since then, haven't we? In 2009—just four years later—Zack Greinke, then of the Kansas City Royals, won the award with a 16-8 record to hold the mark for fewest wins by a Cy Young-winning starter in a non-strike-shortened season in AL history. That is, until Seattle Mariners Felix Hernandez followed up with his own hardware after a 13-12 campaign in 2010 to win the award for himself.
That whole it's-the-way-we've-always-done-it argument no longer holds up.
So what changed? Well, for one thing, plenty of people started pointing out—and some even started listening—that about the only thing a win tells us is which pitcher was in the game at the time his team went ahead for good.
Here are just a few significant aspects of baseball that go into determining which team wins any given game that a win doesn't account for: the opposing team or the opposing pitcher, as well as a team's bullpen or its defense or its run support.
Speaking of run support, Scherzer's 19-3 record might have a little something to do with the 5.53 runs per game of support—third-highest in MLB—he gets from the Tigers, who are baseball's second-highest scoring team. As for Sale? Well, the unlucky lefty is wallowing at 11-13 because he's getting all of 3.18 runs per game—fifth-fewest—from a White Sox club that ranks second-to-last in runs scored.
Of course, none of this gets to what is perhaps the biggest issue many have with pitcher wins: It's a statistic awarded to a single player for an achievement that was accomplished by an entire team.
Now, a pitcher can, and often does, have a huge role in deciding whether a club wins or loses a game, but so does the quarterback in football—and how often do you hear references to Peyton Manning's and Tom Brady's individual win totals?
How much do you rely on pitcher wins when weighing Cy Young candidates?
So when should wins be considered in Cy Young voting? Saying never seems about right, but if you must hold on to the win, the stat should be lower on the totem pole than the many, many other numbers, ratios and metrics that actually indicate how good a pitcher really is.
There are more than enough of those to keep you busy, from the ones listed in the table above to strikeout percentage (K%), ground-ball percentage (GB%), batting average on balls in play (BABIP), to wins above replacement (WAR) and more.
And yet, when it comes to explaining why a particular pitcher has had a great season—even a Cy Young-caliber one—some folks continue to cling to wins, holding on for dear life like a young child would a teddy bear.
If you still need convincing by this point, chances are you won't be changing your mind and will always want to factor in wins when weighing candidates for the Cy Young Award. But to finish up, let's bring back Scherzer and that word he used—fluky.
On April 17, in what was arguably Scherzer's best start of 2013, he gave up only one run on six hits while pitching a season-high eight innings and notching a season-high 12 strikeouts.
Then on Aug. 29, in what was arguably Scherzer's worst start of 2013, he surrendered season-highs of six runs and eight hits in only five innings.
If wins and losses really meant something as far as pitcher performance, it would only be logical to expect that Scherzer won the former and lost the latter, right? Well, in both cases, the actual outcomes were, in fact, the same—and neither resulted in either a win or a loss.
How's that possible?
Why, the no-decision, of course.