CHICAGO — On Sept. 9, a pitcher strode to the mound at U.S. Cellular Field and continued a season that, in the estimation of his pitching coach, is “Cy Young-worthy.” And Detroit’s Max Scherzer pitched against him.
That night, Scherzer sought his 20th win, so long a standard of a superb season, worthy even of the Cy Young Award as his league’s best pitcher. But by the end of the evening, the White Sox’s Chris Sale had thrown eight sterling innings of one-run ball, a typical outing for him. Their records at the end of the night: Scherzer 19-3, Sale 11-12.
There, on one mound in one ballpark, another in a litany of old-school vs. new-school baseball debates crystallized. By virtually any measure, Scherzer is having one of the best seasons by any pitcher in the game, leading the majors in victories (old school) and wins above replacement (new school). But what to make of Sale, who used his performance in the White Sox’s 5-1 victory to drop his ERA to 2.90 — at the time more than a tenth of a run better than Scherzer?
“We have,” White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper said, “no control over wins and losses.”
Yet since sports writer Henry Chadwick first defined the statistic in the 19th century, wins have been considered a primary measure of a starting pitcher’s season, just as batting titles in each league have always gone to the players with the highest average. Now, as those who study baseball statistics as a hobby or profession have replaced batting average with measures that more accurately reflect a hitter’s value — incorporating power and the ability to reach base — wins seem an outdated measure in the minds of many.
Still, they remain an important standard of evaluation for those who don’t devise or rely on more complicated formulas. They are accessible, if not accurate: Someone won; someone lost. In major league history , 24 pitchers have won at least 300 games; all but four — the not-yet-eligible Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Randy Johnson and the drug-tainted Roger Clemens — are in the Hall of Fame.
“The public is still infatuated with winning streaks, home runs, RBIs, records that have long histories,” said Jeff Idelson, president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “We’re not avoiding newer stats. But when Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine are on next year’s ballot, most people won’t say, ‘What was their WAR or their WHIP?’ No, you say there are two 300-game winners on the ballot.”
Indeed, the first stat rolled out when introducing any game’s starting pitcher is the win-loss record, even as there are active campaigns to get rid of such a statistic because, opponents would argue, it doesn’t accurately reflect the number of wins and losses for which a pitcher is responsible. Yet when besieged by so much modern analysis — forget earned run average; think more about fielding independent pitching or the increasingly accepted WAR — traditionalists revert back to simple equations: The object is to win the game, and a starting pitcher must have that as a carrot each time he takes the mound.
“There’s too many numbers,” Nationals pitching coach Steve McCatty said. “It boggles my mind. Is a win important for a starting pitcher? Yes. Should it mean something to him? Yes. It allows you to stay deeper in the games. It’s like a finish line. ‘That’s what I do. I work to give my team a chance to win.’
“If winning is not important, now we’re going to say, ‘If I just keep my team in the game.’ I don’t think that’s any sort of way for a starting pitcher to go out there and pitch.”
But because the win is fickle by nature, that’s exactly how many starters do approach their jobs. Take Scherzer’s most recent attempt at winning his 20th on Sunday against Kansas City. Inarguably, Scherzer did his job, allowing only Alex Gordon’s solo homer in the fourth. When he retired the Royals in the seventh, he had racked up 12 strikeouts, walked one, scattered five hits and left a 2-1 lead to the Detroit bullpen. In the estimation of Tigers Manager Jim Leyland, Scherzer was “absolutely terrific.”
Yet in the eighth, Detroit reliever Drew Smyly allowed a double and, with two outs, threw a wild pitch that produced the tying run. Scherzer, by rule, was no longer able to be the winning pitcher. When Tigers catcher Alex Avila homered in the bottom of the eighth, that honor actually went to Smyly. His win-loss record? 6-0.
“You can’t control a lot of the results,” Scherzer said. “All you can control is the process. For me, you want to take control of going out there and pitching well. That’s something that at the beginning of the year I wanted to be more consistent with, and I have been. If you set numbers on goals, it can distract you because what if you reach the goal? Then what? You can’t control that stuff.”
This season, Scherzer has had plenty to be distracted by. After winning 19 of his first 20 decisions, his win total actually began to be used against him in evaluations. When he won his 19th game, he led the majors in run support — meaning the potent Tigers had averaged more runs in his starts than any team had provided for any other pitcher. That zeroes in on one reason so many believe wins are irrelevant: What control does a pitcher have over his own run support?
“With Chris [Sale], he’s better than what his record is,” said Manager Robin Ventura, whose White Sox have averaged 3.18 runs for Sale, while Scherzer gets 5.53 from the Tigers. “And I think on the other side, people are trying to take a shot at Max for having a good record and getting runs scored for him. . . . To kind of take each side and pick them apart I think is unfair.”
Ventura’s point: A batter’s average is his average, but a pitcher’s win or loss isn’t a totally fair basis for analysis. Through Tuesday, 20 major league pitchers had won 14 or more games. Of those, 16 ranked among the top 40 in baseball in run support, the exceptions including the phenomenal Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers, who leads the majors in ERA, and Philadelphia’s Cliff Lee, who ranks 10th. For some, statistics such as that serve merely as more kindling in the effort to rid the sport of the win.
“I don’t think it should be diminished,” said Brian Kenny, who co-hosts the MLB Network’s “MLB Now.” “I think it should be ignored, completely ignored.”
Kenny has become perhaps the most visible, vocal detractor of the win. He has used his Twitter account to dive daily into what he considers the absurdities of the statistic, coming up with “The Day in the W” and then listing players who had pitched well but not been credited with a win and others who had pitched poorly and been labeled winners anyway.
“You find that the win was useless when trying to evaluate a player’s performance,” Kenny said. “It was so inaccurate that more often than not, when you actually pay attention to it, you find yourself explaining why it’s inaccurate. ‘Well, this guy is 5-9, but he’s pitched much better.’ Or, ‘He’s 5-1, but his ERA is high.’ It’s just tradition. It’s really just a habit.”
On Tuesday, right-hander Dan Haren gave up one run in six innings for the Nationals, who beat Atlanta but only after the bullpen had blown Haren’s lead. The winning pitcher: lefty Ian Krol, who faced one batter and threw four pitches.
“It doesn’t matter who gets the win at this point,” Haren said. “Baseball has kind of evolved, I think, that pitchers are judged less on wins and losses, really.”
On Friday, Scherzer again will go for his 20th win. For some, getting it would be the validation of a tremendous season. For others, it would be nothing short of irrelevant. For him? “I can’t control it anyway,” he said.
Adam Kilgore contributed to this story.
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Box score: Braves 5, Nationals 2