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Joe Posnanski reminds us (again) why a pitcher’s wins are overrated

Sep 5, 2011, 5:40 PM EDT

Steve Carlton

It seems like the Cy Young award voting this year will be pretty straight forward. None of that stuff like we had last year when half of the baseball commentariat yelled at the other half that the win totals shouldn’t matter when deciding who the best pitcher is.  All of the possible Cy Young winners this year have healthy win totals. And the guy who will likely have the most wins — Justin Verlander — has an outrageously good case for the award even if you ignore them.

But Joe Posnanski’s essay about the value of wins — not just their valuelessness — is good reading all the same.  Because, as he usually does, he provides that nice conciliatory middle ground that the people on either side of the pitcher wins debate — or most other debates — usually fail to provide.

How so? By reminding the win crowd that wins aren’t the best statistic, but doing so in a manner that isn’t all pissy and impatient like some of, um, us who don’t like pitchers wins tend to do.  Here he does it by good example. The best: his handling of Steve Carlton’s 1972 season, often cited as an argument for pitcher wins as being a useful metric, but shown to be less-than-useful upon close examination. NOTE: also check out The Platoon Advantage’s take on this from last year.

And on the other side: he reminds us that just because pitcher wins don’t tell us anything particularly useful about the quality of the pitcher for analysis purposes, they are interesting to discuss.  They may not have value as a metric, but they have value as a topic.  In this Posnanski is quite close to the “remember the beer” argument of which I have become such a fan.  The argument which holds that we are not prevented from enjoying discussion and even honoring of something simply because it doesn’t comport with sabermetric principles.  At least as long as we don’t pretend that the cool event/accomplishment we are honoring means more than it truly does.

I’m guessing Posnanski has read it too, and he is remembering the beer.  And speaking of beer, I have a cookout to get too.  Happy Labor Day everyone.

  1. elmaquino - Sep 5, 2011 at 5:42 PM

    Is there any dead horse left to beat?

  2. yankeesfanlen - Sep 5, 2011 at 5:49 PM

    I like the remember the beer argument. Allow me to reminesce.

  3. halladaysbiceps - Sep 5, 2011 at 5:57 PM

    Happy Labor Day to you too, Craig. I hope you are enjoying it like my family and I. We are cooking out too (my girlfriend gets mad when I keep coming back to my laptop to comment, though).

    I look forward to this series between the Braves and the Phillies, like you. Tomorrow should be a great discussion, either way. Go Phillies!!!!!

    • aceshigh11 - Sep 5, 2011 at 6:29 PM

      It’s so cute when you try to act like a normal human being. You’re really getting good at it!

      You’re practically a next-gen Cylon (Craig should appreciate that BSG reference).

      • halladaysbiceps - Sep 5, 2011 at 6:47 PM

        No. I am a decent human being. I respect Craig. I’ll leave it at that.

        Happy Labor Day, aceshigh11. I hope you are enjoying it.

        P.S. What my baseball opinion is not comparable to what I am like personally. That’s a cheap shot.

      • Charles Gates - Sep 5, 2011 at 9:28 PM

        ‘Bicepts is often wrong, but always entertaining. It was a cheap shot. And, who wants to be normal anyway?

  4. ditto65 - Sep 5, 2011 at 6:02 PM

    Stupid. Rain.

    • Chipmaker - Sep 5, 2011 at 8:54 PM

      Trade you rain for wildfires.

  5. sdelmonte - Sep 5, 2011 at 6:21 PM

    So with Carlton, why did the Phils give him good run support so often? It would be interesting – just for fun – to look at run support for pitchers in other high win total seasons and see if there is any sort of trend. Is the presence of an ace on the mound a confidence builder in some cases?

    I don’t think learning if this is at all true is really important. But now I am curious.

  6. royalsfaninfargo - Sep 5, 2011 at 6:51 PM

    The Pos is one of the best columnists around. His stuff is always interesting to read.

  7. macjacmccoy - Sep 6, 2011 at 12:11 AM

    I think a guy with 13 wins and great other stats should be in the discussion for Cy Young award, but I dont devalue it like most people on that side of the argument tend to do. There’s something to be said for winning. Some guys just cant do it as good as others. Its not something that shows up on any stat sheet. Its just and edge that some have and others dont. Where when they’re trailing they will not give up another run and when they have a small lead they will not let up that game tying home run. Some guys cant do it, when the pressure is on and they got that 2-1 lead in the 6th they cant stop them selves from hanging a slider.

    Its something that has to be accounted for and taken seriously. Strict SaberMetric nerds are the atheists of the baseball world. If it cant be equated through mathematics and science then it doesnt exists. Their inability to look past whats only in front of their eyes limits their ability to completely understand and enjoy the game.

    Dont get me wrong I use sabermetrics like BABIP WHIP OPS OBP, I find them useful. But I dont believe they are the end all be all of what a players true value is. I think anyone who stubbornly only relies on 1 means of knowledge or understanding really doesnt understand or know much. Just like religion if all you ever have done is learn about your own religion then how do you know that your right? And how can you form an opinion and say another persons beliefs are wrong and have a discussion about why you believe it is?

    • schmedley69 - Sep 6, 2011 at 12:30 AM

      Well said. Sabermetrics have their place, but sometimes you can go too far and over-analyze things. Wins probably are an overrated stat, but they are not totally useless like Keith Law and the sabermetric extemists would have you believe. At least the guy who wrote this column has some humility and states his case without coming off as an arrogant know-it-all.

    • gammagammahey - Sep 6, 2011 at 3:09 AM

      I agree with your overall point about not relying strictly on nothing but statistical measures (and I think very few people do that so it’s a bit of a straw man argument) but this idea of guys who “know how to win” is overblown and another byproduct of sportswriters looking for a narrative and/or fans looking for something to complain about on talk radio.

    • Kevin S. - Sep 6, 2011 at 7:23 AM

      It’s funny you compare sabermetricians to atheists, because, like many theists, you simply assert the existence of something and expect us to believe it’s there simply because you say so, without any non-anecdotal evidence to support you and very often with quite a bit of evidence to refute you. In this particular case, pitching to the score, it has been repeatedly studied (most famously about Jack Morris, http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=1815 ), and there has never been any effect such as the one you described found. We’ve done the work on that one. How about if you want people to actually take you seriously you actually go out and demonstrate that there are pitchers who can indeed stop giving up runs if they’re down or whatever other claptrap you’re pushing, and you need a little bit more than “D’uh, they do! Obviously!”

  8. firerosenthalthebastard - Sep 6, 2011 at 2:14 AM

    In 1972 Steve Carlton had 27 wins but he also had an ERA of 1.97 so it’s not like he was being bailed out game after game by a strong offense.

    • Kevin S. - Sep 6, 2011 at 8:02 AM

      Nobody’s claiming that he didn’t have one of the best pitching seasons of the past half-century. Posnanski’s point was that he wasn’t winning in spite of his offense – in fact, his run support was roughly league-average that year. Using this simple Support-Neutral Winning Percentage calculator: http://members.cox.net/~harlowk22/eraplus-snwlpct.html we’d expect Carlton’s 182 ERA+ that year to have won 76.8% of the time. Carlton’s actual winning percentage was .730 that year, not a significant difference, especially given the back-of-the-envelope quality of that calculation.

  9. Jonny 5 - Sep 6, 2011 at 8:37 AM

    Mmmmm Beer…

  10. delawarephilliesfan - Sep 6, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    Wow, I guess you live long enough you see everything. Here we have an author with a straight face claiming a pitcher with an ERA of 1.97 really wasn’t that much of a factor in winning games for the 11th ranked offense!

    As anyone who has ever picked up a bat will tell you, hitters do better when the pressure is off. That is why the Phillies scored a lot of runs in Carltons outings. Don’t believe me? Go check the stats – the 1972 Phillies scored an average 1.02 more runs when Carlton started then they did the day before that start. You could look it up. Every here and there you could attribute it to chance, but over 40 starts, there is just one conclusion – the ’72 Phillies hit better when the pitching came through

    The offense did not bail out Lefty, Lefty gave them a boost.

    • Kevin S. - Sep 6, 2011 at 8:53 AM

      And this is what I mean about anecdotal evidence not being good enough. If that effect was true, where was the boost for Felix Hernandez and his 175 ERA+ in 2010? Oh, that’s right, it wasn’t there, because you can’t just use one season of a team hitting better with an ace on the mound as “proof” that there is an actual effect. Come back and show this is a demonstrated, repeatable effect if you don’t want to be laughed off the internet. Because I’ll go anecdote for anecdote with you otherwise.

      • delawarephilliesfan - Sep 6, 2011 at 9:27 AM

        The author used runs scored in Carltons games to illustrate that he was not much of a factor in those wins. I am contending that the addtional runs scored had a lot to do with Carlton. “Anecdotal for Anecdotal” is the exact opposite of what I am saying, I was refuting one particular assertion this author made.

        Carlton had an unbelievable year in 1972, for the author to imply he had the same year as any number of other picthers that year is absurd.

      • delawarephilliesfan - Sep 6, 2011 at 9:38 AM

        P.S. “laughed off the internet”???

      • Kevin S. - Sep 6, 2011 at 10:02 AM

        The author implied nothing of the sort. Is reading comprehension really that hard, or do you enjoy making up straw man positions for you to attack. Pos said that he had league-average run support, and that he didn’t have to overcome a putrid offense – and his record is more or less what we’d expect from someone with his level of pitching success and average run support that season. Nobody is claiming that the offense bailed him out except pitcher win zealots who make up opposition claims.

        You claimed ace pitchers were able to elevate the play of their offenses, citing the fact that the Phillies scored more runs for Carlton that year than they did for their other pitchers. That, my friend, is the definition of an anecdote

  11. delawarephilliesfan - Sep 6, 2011 at 10:30 AM

    “You claimed ace pitchers were able to elevate the play of their offenses”

    Actually what I said was this:

    “the ’72 Phillies hit better when the pitching came through”

    • Kevin S. - Sep 6, 2011 at 11:30 PM

      You also said Lefty gave them a boost, implying causality. Prove it.

      • delawarephilliesfan - Sep 7, 2011 at 10:53 AM

        Lemme guess……this “proof” you want can only judged worthy by you, seer of all seers, satistician of the realm, and Laugher of minions off the Internet?

        You are entitled to your opinion, don’t get so cranky that others see things differently. Of course, I have a feeling getting cranky is excatly what you are about to do anyway….in 5, 4, 3, 2….

      • Kevin S. - Sep 7, 2011 at 11:03 AM

        I didn’t make up the academic and statistical burdens of proof, I just abide by them. That’s apparently too much for you to handle.

        I’m not cranky. I just think that if you’re going to attack the best sportswriter in America, you should at least understand his argument. You pretty clearly didn’t.

      • delawarephilliesfan - Sep 7, 2011 at 11:26 AM

        “academic and statistical burdens of proof”

        Wow! I’m aroused!

  12. delawarephilliesfan - Sep 6, 2011 at 10:33 AM

    P.S. you think of me as a friend? How do you treat enemies?

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