Winning Isn’t Everything

Andrew Hahn

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In sports, it’s all about winning, with one possible exception. In major league baseball (MLB), the total number of wins, along with ERA (earned run average) and strikeouts, has traditionally been one of the main statistics used to measure the success of a starting pitcher. However, with Jacob deGrom contending for the Cy Young Award this season with a mediocre 10 wins, he is testing the old notion that it’s all about winning in sports. If deGrom is successful at convincing the baseball establishment to ignore his measly win total and award him the Cy Young, he may become responsible for creating a new generation of baseball pitchers.

Recently, the importance of traditional baseball statistics has been challenged. For hitters, the batting average has been supplemented, if not replaced, by OBP (on-base percentage) and OPS (on-base plus slugging). In gauging a pitcher’s performance, the traditional ERA has been challenged with ERA+, which adjusts the ERA for the different ballparks. WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitch) and FIP (field independent pitching) have also entered the conversation. Some may also view the total number of strikeouts as less important than SO9 (strikeouts per 9 innings) or SO/W (strikeouts per walk ratio). But of all the traditional statistics, win totals for pitchers is probably the least important in judging a player’s effectiveness.

As Jacob deGrom has shown this year, you can be a dominant pitcher, breaking all kinds of records, but cannot rack up wins because he plays for a poor-performing team. Unlike football, for instance, where a great quarterback can make everyone around him play better, it is unreasonable to think a pitcher can make his teammates score more runs. But perhaps the most illogical rule is that a starting pitcher must pitch at least 5 innings to qualify for a win, while a relief pitcher can face just one batter and can still notch a victory. This 5-inning rule may have greater consequences on the game than people may realize.

Baseball is all about statistics. The better the player’s statistics are, the better the chance he will win an award. And if you are a starting pitcher, you desperately want to increase your win total, because that is one of the traditional statistics used to judge a pitcher. Therefore, a starting pitcher will never consider pitching less than 5 innings per game, even if that may be the best way for his team to succeed.

With a shortage of good starting pitchers, both the Oakland A’s and Milwaukee Brewers have had relief pitchers start playoff games this year. But this practice is seldom done during the regular season, with the Tampa Bay Rays and the A’s experimenting with this concept this season. However, these teams resorted to these unorthodox methods mainly out of necessity because of injuries. The question is whether any team will ever resort to routinely using only “relief” pitchers, or pitchers that never pitch 5 innings in a game.

If deGrom wins the Cy Young, and MLB moves away from valuing win totals for pitchers, it’s interesting to wonder if an elite starting pitcher would agree to pitch fewer innings per outing, but more frequently in general. For example, instead of pitching every 5th day, a starting pitcher may throw every 3rd of 4th day, but a maximum of 4 or 5 innings per outing. If these pitchers agree, it is unknown whether the pitcher will be more effective, but it is something to think about. In a more extreme case, every pitcher would be used as a closer, pitching 1 or 2 innings almost every day. Certainly, to begin this experiment, the starting pitcher needs to change his warm-up routine, but the thought of deGrom pitching nearly every day should definitely excite any Met fan.

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