Defending the “Win” Statistic in Baseball

There are few issues in baseball which have been more thoroughly debated than the merits of the pitcher win. It is an excruciatingly boring topic, where members of my community (the sabermetric community) pat themselves on the backs and crow about how stupid and nonsensical the win is.

The idea of “killing the win,” as espoused by Brian Kenny on MLB Network, made itself over to Fangraphs yesterday in a column where the author asked professionals what they thought about the idea of ditching the statistic. The professionals — a cross section of players, coaches, and analysts — almost universally agreed that, although the win is not all-important, it is a fine statistic worth keeping track of. 

And it is — but don’t tell that to the more zealous section of the sabermetric community.

Even Joe Posnanski got into the act the other day, writing a column suggesting that pitchers should be awarded the win or loss in every game that they start, regardless of what happens subsequent to their exit. In his example, he explains that Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez both led their teams to 22-12 records in their starts, despite the big disparity in their personal W-L record.

This is, of course, an absurd example and way below what is normally to be expected of Posnanski. You can find a number of examples in any direction to illustrate your point – and adding further opacity to the statistic in the name of fairness would obviously have the opposite effect (in addition to failing to reward pitchers who pitch deeper into games and who are, therefore, more often in line to be pitcher of record).

The real solution here is simple – wins and losses should simply be put into their proper context. They aren’t the be-all-end-all, and we are already way past the point where we know that.  If you need anecdotal evidence of that, you can look no farther than the aforementioned Mr. Hernandez, who won the American League Cy Young in 2010 in a landslide despite a record of 13-12.

Wins are great. As a pitcher, you want to record the win. As a fan, you can look at a list of all-time wins leaders and know that you are looking at a list of players who were good enough to rack up wins over a long period of time. Indeed, the list of the Top 16 pitchers by wins in the last ten years is nearly identical to the Top 16 pitchers by FIP:

FIP wins

The only misses from the list sorted by Wins are Chris Carpenter and David Price, who were the only two pitchers with less than 200 starts in this sample (Carpenter made 170, Price made 195, while the next closest was Scherzer at 215).

If you’ve got a problem with the win, it’s okay, I understand why. But try to realize why the rest of us like it. There are many stats that don’t tell the whole story (does anyone think Jose Altuve is the best hitter in baseball because he won a batting title?), but we keep them because they say something happened in this game, and we want to keep track of it. It’s not popularity, it’s not slavish adherence to tradition, it’s allowing statistics to paint a broad and colorful picture of the game that we enjoy.