The debate is over. It ended on Nov. 18, 2010, the day Felix Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award with a 13-12 record, beating David Price, who was 19-6, and CC Sabathia, who was 21-7.
Most voters get it. They know, thanks to the rise of sabermetrics, that win-loss record alone is a poor measure of pitching excellence. There is no chance we will ever see a repeat of 1990, when Bob Welch’s 27 wins prevailed over Roger Clemens’ 21, even though Clemens’ 1.93 ERA was more than a full run per game lower.
So, while my friend Brian Kenny rants daily on Twitter and MLB Network about “killing” the win and educating all of us half-wits in the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, he’s like a single-issue candidate fighting for a law that already has passed.
The better questions, as they pertain to this year’s American League Cy Young race, are these:
• Who is more deserving, Detroit’s Max Scherzer or Texas’ Yu Darvish?
• Should wins matter at all?
Let’s tackle the second question first, though it is somewhat less pressing than it was a week ago: Scherzer, 19-2, twice has failed to get his 20th victory, and on Tuesday night suffered his second loss, falling to Boston, 2-1.
Of course, Scherzer still could finish 24-2 if he wins all of his remaining starts, a record that — in the view of most casual fans — seemingly would assure him of the Cy Young. Darvish is 12-7 after his loss Wednesday afternoon in Oakland, but as we shall see, in most other statistical categories, the two were quite close.
So, what about the difference in their respective win totals? Well, it can be attributed partly to Scherzer’s run support, which is the best in the majors by a considerable margin. In both of Scherzer’s losses — surprise! — the Tigers scored just one run.
Run support and bullpen support contribute mightily to a pitcher’s win total — and a pitcher, of course, has zero control over both. But when I posed the win-loss question to a friend of mine, a sabermetrician who works in a major-league front office, his response was considerably less strident than Kenny’s.
I’m granting my friend anonymity to protect him from the barbarians at the gate on both sides of the discussion and also to shield the identity of his club. The old-school/new-school debate over win-loss records, my friend said, is ongoing even within his own front office. And the old-school types, he conceded, “have a point.”
“They’re sophisticated enough to understand run support, defense, BABIP (batting average on balls in play), left-on-base percentage, luck, etc.,” my friend said. “All those things affect win-loss, but there is some variation in win-loss record that might be explained by experience, know-how, in-game strategy. Maybe the explanatory power is vanishingly small, but it probably is not zero.”
My friend went on to say that if a pitcher “knows how to win,” his savvy will show up in other advanced stats but “maybe not completely.” The larger question, he said, is whether certain pitchers “pitch to the score,” as Jack Morris says he did throughout his career. Morris says that he wasn’t worried about his ERA when he had a big lead; he pitched more to contact, and if his ERA and other statistics suffered, so be it.
I don’t vote for Morris for the Hall of Fame; his career 3.90 ERA would be the highest of any pitcher in the Hall, and I’m wary of lowering that standard. But my friend says that we should perhaps be less skeptical of “pitching to the score,” reasoning that if managers manage to the score, it shouldn’t be outrageous to think that pitchers would do the same.
OK, but back to win-loss record.
Few knowledgeable observers assign it great meaning, but my friend says, “I don’t see it disappearing; it contains information.” What kind of information? A pitcher’s ability to work deep into games, for starters (something that is more clearly reflected by his innings total). Also, a pitcher’s ability to hold leads.
Darvish, according to STATS LLC, has lost leads of two or more runs in six of his 27 starts — we’re talking about his final lead, not any two-run lead during the course of a game. Scherzer, on the other hand, has squandered such leads in only two of his 28 starts. Means something, doesn’t it?
Yes. Especially when otherwise, the two are nearly inseparable.
Darvish, entering Wednesday, had the slightly better ERA, 2.73 to 2.88. But Darvish’s ERA increased to 2.91 when gave up five runs in five-plus innings in Oakland. Darvish also had the better ERA-plus, a statistic that adjusts ERA to a pitcher’s league and ballpark — no small thing in this discussion, since Darvish pitches in the hitter-friendly Ballpark in Arlington while Scherzer works in more pitcher-friendly Comerica Park (though Comerica, according to park factor, actually rates as more hitter-friendly than the Ballpark this season).
Scherzer ranked first in opponents’ OPS (Darvish was second) and ahead of Darvish in Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and both accepted measures of Wins Above Replacement (WAR), Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs. Darvish ranked first in strikeouts per nine innings — his rate of 12.16 would be one of the 10 highest in major-league history — and fewest hits per nine. Scherzer was second in both categories.
Others also deserve mention. Scherzer’s teammate, Anibal Sanchez, leads the league in ERA and also would be among the Cy Young favorites if he had not missed three weeks with a strained right shoulder. The Chicago White Sox’s Chris Sale currently would be third on my ballot despite his 10-12 record. Seattle’s Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma also would merit top-five consideration.
Right now, though, I’ve got Scherzer first, and not because he is 19-2. No, I’ve got Scherzer ahead of Darvish and the others because he ranks at or near the top in more statistical categories that we now consider important. The award is for best pitcher, and to this point Scherzer has been just that, the best of the best.
I won’t actually cast a ballot for AL Cy this season — I’m voting for AL MVP and NL Cy Young — but if I did, I would withhold judgment, waiting to see if anything changed in the final few weeks. Most voters generally stay similarly open-minded. And most are quite mindful of their responsibilities despite what some critics will have you believe.
Heaven knows we’re not perfect, but if there is one thing we have proved, it’s that we understand the diminished value of pitchers’ wins and losses.
The debate is over. It ended in 2010. A pitcher needs much more than a gaudy win-loss record to capture a Cy Young.