Should wins be recorded for starting pitchers?

Updated: May 9, 2015
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The great debate. This has been one of the biggest hot button topics of the last few years, and you’re either completely for it or against the idea of it.

Are wins are a completely useless statistic in baseball?

Like any important statistic, there are rules and guidelines to follow when counting wins and losses for a starting pitcher. However, over the years I’ve found that fans and other journalists are either extremely for the statistic, or against it. There’s no in-between.

And what would a great debate be if everyone didn’t throw their own personal opinions into the ring? Well, here’s mine.

The Basics

We all know that there are basic guidelines that insure whether or not a starting pitcher will receive a win:

  1. The starting pitcher must pitch at least five innings to qualify for a win.
  2. The starting pitcher must have a lead or his team must take the lead, before another pitcher has a chance to make an impact on the ball game.
  3. If the starting pitcher is removed from the ball game, and the lead is lost or a tie ensues, the pitcher will not be eligible to win the game.

In other words, winning is hard, as it is for any sport or game that requires a scorekeeper. But, it is easy to see why people aren’t in favor of the statistic, due to the strict rules that surround it.

The Argument Against

For example, say a starting pitcher carries a 7-0 lead into the beginning of the 8th inning and needs to be relieved. If that reliever allows seven runs to tie the game, the starting pitcher then receives a “no decision” for the game. Now, say a starter pitches the bare minimum, allows six runs, and holds a 10-6 lead until the end of play, he will receive a win for lasting five innings.

It doesn’t matter how well or poorly a pitcher performs, as long as the guidelines are met by the end of the game. Anyone that disagrees with the “wins” rule, will bring up quality starts as a better unit of measurement for starting pitchers. Why?

Well, it’s simple. In order to receive a quality start, a pitcher needs to pitch at least six innings and allow three earned runs or less to qualify. There’s no reliability on the team to contribute to your success, making it a perfect statistic to measure the dominance of any pitcher. There are other important stats, such as ERA, WHIP, FIP, and K/9, which help determine whether a pitcher is truly lucky or unstoppable.

Another point that could be made is the fact that wins and losses carry more weight as a team statistic than a personal statistic, because it really does require a team effort to win or lose games. The entire team has to function together in order to win a ball game on most nights and requires more than a solid pitching performance to accomplish.

The Argument For

However, to count wins and losses out completely for any pitcher as a measurable statistic isn’t acceptable at this point in time. There are a few reasons it’s beneficial and almost necessary to track an individual’s win/loss record:

  1. If a pitcher is able to maintain a strong pitching performance long enough for their team to take a lead, they deserve recognition for it. Not only were they able to make a strong enough impact on the ball game to garner a win for their team, but they held off the opposing team long enough to gain enough run support to make it possible.
  2. Wins and losses help measure just exactly how dominant a pitcher is in a major league setting. Sure, you can have incidents where a starter will get blown up and still receive the win. But, these opportunities are somewhat rare and the other surrounding statistics are affected because of it.
  3. Probably the most important argument I have to contribute, the win/loss record of a starting pitcher is very important when it comes to determining which player receives the prestigious Cy Young award at the end of the season.

Here’s a fun fact: only two starting pitchers since the award was first introduced in 1956 have won the award without winning 15 or more games during the season, (Fernando Valenzuela in 1981 with a 13-7 record and Felix Hernandez in 2010 with his 13-12 record). Nearly 60 years of Cy Young Award winners and only two players have managed to win it without winning 15 or more games? That seems pretty important to me.

We can all agree that the Cy Young Award and the MVP share similar traits toward one another. The Cy Young Award winners are widely considered the most dominant and successful pitcher in baseball that year, while the MVP winners are awarded by strong performances that helped lead their respective teams to success. Usually the MVP award is handed out to a position player, unless you’re one of the nine pitchers that have managed to win both in the same season.

Anyway, my reasoning for the statistic being important for starting pitching heavily relies on the Cy Young and MVP awards. Mainly because these awards are heavily weighted on team success and are rarely given to starting pitchers that finish on teams with poor records. For example, Cole Hamels had a great year in 2014, finishing the year with 198 strikeouts in 204.2 innings, posting a 2.46 ERA, and allowing only 14 home runs all year long. But, his 9-9 record wasn’t only underwhelming, it would also prove to be insignificant, as the Philadelphia Phillies performed near the cellar of the majors all season and finished with one of the worst records in baseball.

While wins and losses do seem better suited for the actual team’s performance, they still hold a very significant value with starting and relief pitchers, in the sense that it does help their case when it comes to voting for the MVP and Cy Young awards. These awards are handed out on individual merit and team performance, which makes sense for a pitcher’s personal record to be influence the final decision. If we didn’t include the win/loss perspective, it’d be even harder to differentiate a player’s individual accomplishments for that season.

We’ll use the 2014 season as another example supporting this argument. Due to injury, Clayton Kershaw ended up missing a little over a month of the season after his first start against the Arizona Diamondbacks on March 22nd. The time that he missed equated to around 5-7 starts, which is a significant amount of work for a pitcher, considering a completely healthy starting pitcher will make between 30-33 starts in any given season.

Regardless of the time he missed, he finished with an impressive 21-3 record, 1.77 ERA, and 239 strikeouts in 198.1 innings pitched. The kid was phenomenal. But, how would he stack up against opposing pitchers if quality starts were the only recorded and implemented statistic for starting pitchers?

  • Johnny Cueto: 242 strikeouts, 2.25 ERA, .96 WHIP, 29 QS
  • Adam Wainwright: 179 strikeouts, 2.38 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 25 QS
  • Cole Hamels: 198 strikeouts, 2.46 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 25 QS
  • Clayton Kershaw: 239 strikeouts, 1.77 ERA, .86 WHIP, 24 QS

Now, by this measure, Cueto could have easily pushed Kershaw for the Cy Young Award, due to the fact that both pitchers lead their respective teams to the playoffs and Cueto ended up finishing the year with 5 more quality starts. If the win/loss records weren’t a part of the equation, Cueto may have taken the award for himself in 2014. You could make a case for Kershaw without the record because of his ERA alone, but nevertheless, his record is what made him a clear-cut choice to be named the Cy Young.

You could disagree with this position entirely, but it does play an important role in determining whether or not a pitcher deserves to be named the Cy Young or MVP that year. It also helps us sort the dominant pitchers from the slightly-above average. I’ll provide one more isolated example that helps support this.

In 2014, Aaron Harang finished with 25 quality starts. Was Harang a dominant pitcher that year? He was solid all year long, but dominant? Not even close. Players like Julio Teheran, Stephen Strasburg, Lance Lynn, Wily Peralta, Jonathon Niese, and Alfredo Simon all finished with 21 or more QS to end the season. By this measure, they were some of the most consistent starting pitchers in the National League. But, when you take a look at their records, ERA, and strikeout totals, you’re not overwhelmed like you are with pitchers like Kershaw, Cueto, and Wainwright.

For the record, Strasburg isn’t too far off from joining this “elite” group of pitchers. All he needs is one solid year with a winning record, an ERA below 3.00 and at least 15 wins and I’ll change my stance on that. But, I’ve digressed.

Wins are an important statistic to keep track of when monitoring a starting pitcher throughout the year and I strongly believe it would be a mistake to discard this completely because fans aren’t “too fond of it.” The guidelines may be strict, but it’s a part of baseball and I hope it stays that way.


Photo Credit: (Harry How/Getty Images North America)

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