When the Yankees beat the Rays on Saturday, the baseball media were quick to point out that starting pitcher Chris Archer had earned his 18th loss of the season. The focus on his W-L record makes clear that, at least to some in baseball-land, pitcher wins continue to have some significance:
Chris Archer ties a franchise record with 18 losses. Tanyon Sturtze no longer stands alone in the record books.— Sam Blum (@SamBlum3) September 10, 2016
Not surprisingly, Chris Archer himself had the most compelling response to this narrative:
It’s 2016. Should Chris Archer really need to answer questions about his W-L record?
Pitcher W-L “stats” have been discredited
Analytically-minded baseball front offices and fans have stopped finding significance in wins long ago, and even the award-voters of the slow-to-adapt BWAA gave Felix Hernandez the 2010 AL Cy Young award with “only” 13 wins on a losing Seattle Mariners team.
So to some, the fight against pitcher wins is over, and smart people have moved on, but the local media still seem to be in thrall to this statistic. Like some sort of drug-resistant bacteria, pitcher wins are still with us.
Media focus flares up when a pitcher is poised to have a lot of either wins or losses, and the novelty can be interesting, but allow me a heart-felt request to sports media who feel compelled to make pitcher records a key part of their story:
Impassioned pleas to ditch pitcher wins can be found in many places, most notably MLB Network’s Brian Kenny’s #KilltheWin campaign, and most often in discussion of end of season awards. Here I’d like to add a few Rays-focused thoughts to this conversation.
Losses tell us nothing about Archer’s season
Let’s start with Chris Archer. Has he had a great season? No. His performance is inferior to last year’s according to just about every measure other than strikeouts per 9 innings. We can look at his season-long ERA of just over 4.00, or even his FIP at 3.69 and know that he has not pitched consistently at an elite level.
But the focus on his 18 losses suggests that his season is historically bad, and that is far from true.
I reviewed all the games in which he pitched at least 5 innings and gave up 3 runs or fewer, games that could easily be wins with decent run support and a reliable bullpen. In those 18 games (out of 30 starts), Archer’s record is 8 wins, 7 losses, and 3 no-decisions.
One could argue, however, that he did his job in all 18 of those games.
Pitcher wins tell us nothing about performance, and create badly misleading narratives
Discussions about pitcher W-L tend to get lumped in with other “Saber vs. tradition” contests over use of traditional statistics like batting average and RBI. But pitcher wins are entirely different.
Batting average, for example, has been criticized by the analytically minded for failing to tell the full story of a hitter’s impact. But batting average is at least a real, if imperfect, measure of performance. It tells you in what percentage of at bats a player has gotten a hit.
Pitcher W-L record is not, in contrast, merely an incomplete stat.
For instance, Archer’s 4.05 ERA is elevated by a handful of poor, early season starts. If you take away his first four starts (all “losses”), Archer has a 3.65 ERA since April 25th. As of this writing, league average for starters is a 4.35 ERA.
What a W-L record really measures is a coincidence -- whether a pitcher happens to be on the mound when certain game situations that determine wins and losses prevail, such as how many runs the opposing pitcher allowed. It’s not just meaningless but misleading.
Some have noted that there is some correlation between pitcher wins and other measures of pitching performance but the presence of such correlation doesn’t justify counting those wins as though they have independent meaning.
Pitcher wins are inaccurate
Finally, I don’t think that the discussion of pitcher wins thus far has captured just how nonsensical it is to give credit (or blame) for an outcome in a team sport to just one player.
To be sure, a starting pitcher has more control over run suppression than any other player on the field, but that control is still limited, especially in an era where few pitchers throw a complete game -- and especially in the American League, Chris Archer in particular has no control over production by the offense.
Is there any other team sport where a particular player’s performance is measured based on team-wide wins? In the NFL, statisticians will track quarterback wins, but those figures do not play the same role in the narratives about that quarterback’s performance or value to a team.
MLB may decide to continue tracking pitcher wins and losses, but no one is forcing the media to talk about it. Instead of asking Chris Archer questions about how it feels to lose 18 games, let’s use his W-L record this year as a great reason to stop talking about pitcher wins at all.