The Anatomy of a Pitcher Win

At the end of the 1972 season, Steve Carlton was awarded the NL Cy Young award for his efforts with the Philadelphia Phillies. He certainly earned it. He posted a 12.1 WAR, a 22% strikeout rate, and an ERA- of 56. What many voters and fans were looking at, however, was his wins — 27, the most in the National League.

That number is impressive for a different reason to my father. Steve Carlton’s 27 wins in 1972 are important to my dad because it is included in one of his favorite baseball tales, a not-so-secret weapon for dads — Steve Carlton won 27 games in 1972, the same year the Phillies won all of 59. For those keeping score at home, that means that Steve Carlton was awarded a pitcher win in 46% of the games that the Phillies won all together.

This is more in the “fun fact” category than the “useful information” one, but it’s an eyebrow raiser nonetheless. Still, I needed to set the record straight and, during the 14th or 15th time my dad relayed his trivia nugget I, politely, mentioned that pitcher wins perhaps aren’t as important of a stat as we once thought. This led to a discussion involving all the usual stuff statistically-minded people mention when discussing wins. We sort of agreed to disagree, I guess, but something still stuck with me.

I began pondering pitcher wins some more. This is something that probably should very rarely be done, but hey, it’s January. After a while, I found a nasty thought materializing in my head — a thought that went against so many things I’d been hearing and saying for so long. Good pitchers might not always get wins, but do winning pitchers generally do well?

Famed stats person Brian Kenny has been pushing his “kill the win” campaign for some time now. I get the idea behind it, and I generally agree with it. Throughout last season he famously tweeted stat lines in which a good performance did not get a win for a certain pitcher, or vice versa. And while the logic is sound — using this fairly outdated statistic is not the best measure for a pitcher’s talent — it tended to cherry pick a bit. Whether its pitching or the catalog of a band or the quality of a grocery store’s tomatoes, there will always be outliers — warts and blemishes that look bad close up, but get washed away in the aggregate. So, out of sheer curiosity, some digging was done.

A note on the process: I found all the pitching performances from 1974 (the farthest back we have reliable data for such things) that resulted in wins or losses, then averaged some basic stats from those performances. I also took the league average for each corresponding year as a comparison. I used a 5IP threshold to negate vulture wins by relievers. I realize that this may help the losers group a little, since we won’t see the truly awful losses that led to pitchers getting the hook early, but we’ll have to make due.

The chart is somewhat interactive, as you can select different tabs, single out certain years, and show and hide certain filters. Play around with it. I’ve added no-decisions to the mix as well, but hid them by default. Click on the measure name to activate it. The large version is available here.

I won’t insult anyone by relaying everything the chart tells us, but the general point is there. A pitcher who logs a win historically, on average, did better than league average on that particular day. Though, he didn’t really do that much better. The biggest gap occurs in ERA, which sort of makes sense. A high number of runs means the pitcher is getting pulled and probably won’t be in line for a win. A winning pitcher does have a higher K%, but only by about 2% at the most extreme. That’s the difference between Matt Harvey and Clayton Kershaw. The same goes for walk rates — 1% to 2% difference. Winning pitchers pitch longer into games and are generally more efficient in that game, as well.

Look how all those lines mirror each other so well. There really isn’t a year in which the losers were way more terrible than average, or the winners that much better. They just kind of coast along, varying just a bit on either side of the orange line. Winners, losers, it doesn’t matter. They all just teeter slightly on one side of the league-average fulcrum.

Every loss that a bullpen blew for a starter, every cheap win a pitcher got thanks to a high-powered offense, it all gets blended away. The Steve Carltons or Max Scherzers of the world — dominating pitchers with the win total to accompany it — get dragged back down to Earth by the bottom of the average. No one is safe from the anchor of mediocrity.

No analysis on pitcher wins is going to win me any awards, and this might rank at the very bottom of even that in terms of usefulness. This is simply for fun, at least if you call database querying fun. I do. I’m sure none of you needed any more fuel in your arguments against the merit of pitcher decisions. But it’s a fun thing to look at and ponder. A stat that many fans and writers — and even pitchers themselves, for that matter — care about hang on the thinnest of threads above the boringness of the norm. A percentage point here, a half-percentage point there. Think of all the big contracts handed out on win numbers, the awards, too. Think of all the fantasy leagues won and lost. We always knew that a pitcher win (or loss) has a lot to do with luck. The numbers show it has a lot to do with doing just slightly better than league average, too.

David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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Could you just look at the R squared for Wins vs. ERA- or RA/9 or something?


By the way, a quick R squared on 2013 qualified starters showed a correlation of .213 between W/GS and ERA-.