Late last night, I was flipping through last year’s stats and came across Livan Hernandez. Hernandez’s 2010 ERA was 3.66, better than the league average of 4.02. Despite this, something all too common happened to Hernandez: he posted a losing record, going 10-12. Despite this, some would have you believe that a pitcher’s won-lost record actually describes how well he pitched.
In Jay’s article, linked above, reactionary sportswriter Murray Chass is quoted: "Under this new-age thinking, if a team doesn’t score more than three runs a game, a pitcher isn’t expected to win. No longer is a pitcher expected to win 3-2 or 2-1. If his team doesn’t score at least four runs, it’s not the pitcher’s fault if he doesn’t win. There was once a time when pitchers were expected to win unless their team scored no runs, and then they were expected to tie."
I’ve always found it fascinating that in addition to being blessed with the ability to throw a small spheroid 90 to 100 miles per hour to a very specific location, pitchers should possess the preternatural ability to know how many runs their own offense will score. If the pitcher gives up a run or two in the top of the first, goes nine innings, and loses 1-0 or 2-1, it was all his fault because he hadn’t anticipated that his own team would be stifled by Ian Snell.
My favorite example of a pitcher who did everything possible to win yet was discredited by an accounting system that bears no resemblance to reality is Nolan Ryan’s 1987. Ryan went 8-16 for the Astros, so he must have been miserable, right? Wrong. He led the league in ERA (2.76 against a league average of 4.08), strikeouts, and hits allowed per nine innings. With a fair amount of run support, he would have won a minimum of 15 games and with strong run support he would have won 20. His ERA in his losses was 4.19, and in no decisions it was 2.30.
Ryan isn’t a good choice, though, because his detractors have always argued that he was a .500 pitcher whose strikeouts caused him to be overrated. I don’t agree, but we can throw those guys a bone. It’s easy to do that, because you can find such seasons in the catalogue of many Hall of Fame or near-Hall of Fame pitchers, including Herb Pennock, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Rube Waddell, Lefty Gomez, Stan Coveleski, Hal Newhouser, Ted Lyons, Mike Mussina, and more.
Let’s go with Mike Mussina, since he’s still fresh in the mind. It was an offense-heavy year in 2000, and the American League had an ERA of 4.91. Moose, playing for a mediocre Orioles team, had an ERA of 3.79. When adjusted for park and league, this was 25 percent better than average, or if you don’t believe in adjustments (when your pants get loose, you just let them fall down), his ERA was 1.13 runs better than the league. He was 1.58 runs better than his team, whose average includes him. Yet, his record was only 11-15, and he ranked second in the league in losses. His ERA in his eight no-decisions was 1.98. His ERA in his losses was over 6.00, but that figure is inflated by a few disaster starts, truly deserved losses. He also dropped two games in which he allowed two runs over eight innings, and two more in which he allowed three runs over seven innings. Give Mussina wins in just half his no-decisions and his record becomes 15-15. Give him wins in those four games in which he pitched well but lost anyway, and his record in 19-11. Throw him one more for good behavior, say the game he lost having allowed four runs in eight innings to the Blue Jays, and suddenly Mussina has a second 20-win season—and we haven’t changed anything about the way he pitched, just the way his team scored runs.
Again, if you’re convinced that Mussina should have known better than to allow two runs in eight innings on a night when his team was only going to score one, well, you’re more religious than I am and have expectations that even actual religions don’t support. Not every wish is immediately granted, but we must expect pitchers to be exactly what the situation requires or be called failures. If winning requires perfection, they must know to be perfect.
…Except of course, when, as Jack Morris supposedly did, it’s okay to just "pitch to the score." Those pitchers who win a lot of games despite a high ERA have the precognitive ability to know that, hey, we don’t have to stress, we’re going to win this one 17-13. Surely that was the case in 2004, when Shawn Estes went 15-8 with an ERA of 5.84, or 2009, when Braden Looper went 14-7 with an ERA of 5.22. Looper was so good that year he couldn’t even get a job offer for 2010. Yet, he had a better record than Andy Pettitte, who went 14-7, so he must have been at least as good or better, right? Sure, Pettitte’s ERA was more than a run lower and in the DH league to boot, but it’s those Ws that count, not how the pitcher performed.
Those enthusiasts for pitcher wins that are still out there, I’d like to see a definition of "wins" that actually means something that is fair to the pitcher. Otherwise, you’re just forcing the hurlers to adhere to a rather arbitrary standard that is impossible to justify. Teams win or lose. Pitchers are no more singularly responsible for those outcomes than is any other participant on the field.