Jacob deGrom Has Cemented Pitcher Wins as the Dumbest Stat in BaseballAugust 15, 2018
Like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, the win has proven tough to kill. It's still featured on pitchers' stat lines, and it hasn't yet exited Major League Baseball discourse.
Still, it feels like the win has been on life support in recent years.
Its reputation was dealt a blow when Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award with only 13 wins in 2010. While baseball broadcasters and writers have continued to reference wins, they've begun to feel less like the ultimate measure of pitching effectiveness and more like an ode to tradition.
Now, along comes Jacob deGrom and what could be the final nail in the win's coffin.
Provided you don't look at his win-loss record, it's obvious that the New York Mets right-hander is having a spectacular season. Through 24 starts, he boasts an MLB-best 1.81 ERA with 195 strikeouts and only 36 walks in 159 innings. According to Baseball Reference, he's tied for second among pitchers with 7.1 wins above replacement.
But then there's his win-loss record. The 30-year-old has won only seven games and lost just as many. Among all pitchers who've made at least 20 starts, that's tied for the 45th-best record.
Remarkably, deGrom's current record marks an improvement from where he had been. He was stuck on five wins between June 23 and August 3. He's since earned wins in consecutive outings for the first time since his first two starts of the season on March 31 and April 5.
If deGrom falls back into another win lull, he may not get to double digits in the win column by the end of the year. Even if that doesn't happen, he'll still have a shot at making strange history.
As of now, deGrom has a 208 ERA+ to go with his 1.81 ERA. To date, no starter has ever maintained an ERA+ north of 200 across 30 or more starts and finished with fewer than 13 wins:
- Roger Clemens, 2005: 13 wins
- Zack Greinke, 2009: 16 wins
- Pedro Martinez, 1997: 17 wins
- Kevin Brown, 1996: 17 wins
- Zack Greinke, 2015: 19 wins
To one extent, this is a singularly weird occurrence that's resulted from deGrom doing his job while his teammates aren't doing theirs.
On days deGrom has pitched, Mets hitters have mustered only 3.75 runs per game in support. As if that wasn't bad enough, Mets relievers have a 7.24 ERA in games deGrom started. It's hard to win with that going on.
To another extent, deGrom's season is an inevitable upshot of a larger story.
For a complete history of the win, read Frank Vaccaro's piece for the Society for American Baseball Research. But the concern here is about the stat's origin.
Hall of Fame writer Henry Chadwick invented the win in 1884 and began publishing individual totals in 1885. The Sporting News began to follow suit in 1888, but with a disclaimer (via Vaccaro):
"[The win] seems to place the whole game upon the shoulders of the pitcher and I don't believe it will ever become popular even with so learned a gentleman as Mr. Chadwick to father it. Certain it is that many an execrable pitcher game is won by heavy hitting at the right moment after the pitcher has done his best to lose it."
And yet, assigning wins and losses to individual pitchers made some sense initially. Through the first few decades of Major League Baseball's existence, it tended to be the responsibility of one pitcher to keep the opposing offense in check. He either did or didn't, and games were won and lost depending on his ability on a given day.
But baseball isn't like that anymore. There's now a division of labor between starting pitchers and relief pitchers, and it's becoming more even with each passing year:
Not surprisingly, the share of wins has followed the same pattern:
There's no slowing this train down. On the contrary, it's speeding up.
The 2016 (1,749) and 2017 (1,903) seasons produced more starts of five or fewer innings than any in history, and there have already been 1,437 such starts in 2018. This is largely reflective of how much teams value and trust their bullpens. And with the Tampa Bay Rays getting solid results from their beta test of using their bullpen to handle entire games, "bullpenning" is more a threat than ever to traditional pitching roles.
The win isn't the only statistic which assigns individual credit to team-oriented feats that's holding steady in public discourse. The RBI and the save are as well. It would be best if they were downplayed, if not altogether ignored.
But at this point, nothing is more antiquated than crediting individual pitchers with having "won" or "lost" a game. As the effort to keep the opposition in check becomes more and more of a team effort, it will become a downright stupid idea.
The bright side, however, is that baseball seemed ready for the win to fall out of favor even before deGrom embarked on his strangely historic season.
When FanGraphs' David Laurila surveyed players about killing the win in 2015, few went to bat for it. In 2017, even one guy who gets a lot of wins expressed his indifference.
"It's really not a good way to evaluate a pitcher," Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner and two-time 20-game winner, told Manny Randhawa of Sports on Earth. "You can be on a good or a bad team and that affects your win-loss record."
For his part, deGrom appears to be on the same page. Following the Mets' 8-0 victory against the Cincinnati Reds on Aug. 8, he told reporters his goal isn't to win games, but to "go out there and keep guys from getting around the bases."
Not surprisingly, his manager is fine with this.
"I don't value win-loss record anymore—or, as much," Mets skipper Mickey Callaway said, according to Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. "I think there is something to be said about run prevention when you're talking about pitching. That's what pitching's all about. And Jacob is probably the best in the big leagues this year at that."
This doesn't mean deGrom has the National League Cy Young Award as good as won. If all things are roughly equal between him and Scherzer—who's once again dominating with a 2.19 ERA and an MLB-high 227 strikeouts—the latter's record (currently 15-5) may be what sways voters.
However, there's no time like the present for a win-loss record to be disregarded in favor of what actually matters.
If that happens, the win may finally and rightfully be laid to rest.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.