What’s in a Win?

30 Jul

In the summer I’ve spent working media relations for a minor league baseball team, the Kansas City T-Bones, I learned something that people with more baseball background already know full well. The assignment of wins and losses to pitchers is the most bogus system ever.

The bottom line is that the connotation of “win” is good, and the connotation of “loss” is bad. However, it is entirely possible to pitch lights-out and still take a loss, or pitch fairly badly and still get a win. Sometimes the system awards performances that do not deserve such kindness, and sometimes it ignores performances altogether, whether good or bad.

If you don’t believe me (and again, if you know baseball, you probably already do), consider these examples.

1. On July 13, the T-Bones led the rival Wichita Wingnuts 6-3 going into the ninth inning. The starting pitcher, Shaun Garceau, pitched seven innings and gave up three runs while striking out seven. Long story short, he left the game, and the Wingnuts scored five runs in the top of the ninth. Kansas City’s offense picked up the team, and the T-Bones walked away with the win … but Garceau did not. How ridiculous is that? He helped his team build a three-run lead, and after he exits, the lead goes away, so all he has done gets brushed aside, and he gets a “no decision.”

2. On July 26, Kansas City starter Josh Rainwater pitches a complete game. He allows just two hits. Unfortunately, an error by an infielder and a lack of production from the offense result in a 3-0 final score in favor of the St. Paul Saints. Obviously, Rainwater can’t get a win because his team didn’t win, but doesn’t it seem absurd to credit him with a loss when he pitched so well? Pitchers earn wins every single day with far less impressive performances, yet giving up a pair of infield singles over an entire game constitutes a “loss” – something that certainly sounds like a poor outing, when it fact it could not be more the opposite.

3. On July 24, T-Bones starting pitcher Brian Grening had his roughest outing to date, quite a surprise considering how well he had done in earlier games. He gave up six earned runs on 10 hits in six innings. When he left the game, Kansas City trailed St. Paul 6-1. Thanks to a three-run bottom of the seventh and a five-run bottom of the eighth, the T-Bones ended up with the win, which was credited to the reliever who faced three batters in the eighth inning. Grening, of course, got a “no decision.” Obviously, if the team hadn’t come through with a copious amount of offense at the end of the game, Grening’s performance would have put another “L” on his record, and it would have been merited. But again, that is not how this system works.

4. On July 28, the T-Bones led 6-4 going into the ninth inning. Reliever Mike Mehlich, who has a team-high eight saves this season, loaded the bases with three straight walks and surrendered an RBI single after a hard-fought, 14-pitch at bat. He left the game, and the T-Bones went on to survive 6-5. Obviously, that’s a performance that could very well have resulted in a loss, but he didn’t factor in the decision.

While it is done conversationally almost nonstop, attributing a win or loss to one player in any other sport does not happen in the record books. In baseball, that is exactly what happens. An outcome that is only partially controlled by the pitcher ends up by his name and affects how he is perceived. Why assign something that clearly is the result of an entire team’s performance to one individual?

Now, I understand that ERA is a much better indicator of how good a pitcher is, and people who know anything pay much more attention to that than wins and losses. I get that there is an understanding among baseball folks of exactly the kind of discrepancies I’m pointing out. I hear it when purists say that changing the system would mess up the record books, and baseball is so statistically rooted that would never happen.

All that aside, the system of assigning wins and losses to a pitcher is ridiculous. Wins and losses belong to the group, not to one person, and trying to make it appear otherwise is often misleading and just plain inaccurate. If you think I’m crazy or think I’m right, I would love to hear some other opinions, or suggestions as to another way to evaluate pitchers in relation to wins and losses without them getting blamed or credited erroneously.

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