Since the start of the 2016 season, a starting pitcher has gone at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs 1,071 times. In one out of every three of those instances (350), the starter did not register a win. In 102 of those cases, the starting pitcher actually took the loss.
With so many factors in a game outside the starting pitcher’s control, such as how many runs his team scores or how his team’s bullpen performs after he comes out, the debate over whether the pitcher win is still relevant has been raging in recent years. Thus far, the statistic has withstood criticism and remains a staple in baseball’s lexicon.
But what do Major League starting pitchers, who have the “W,” “L” or “ND” (no-decision) assigned to them on a given day — often bearing the “L” despite pitching well — think about the utility of the stat?
“It’s really not a good way to evaluate a pitcher,” said reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who went 20-7 with a 2.96 ERA last season. “You can be on a good or a bad team and that affects your win-loss record.”
It isn’t an open-and-shut case, however.
“The other thing, too, is this — as far as the equation of it: You show up to the ballpark to pitch that day, and the only thing you wanna do is win,” Scherzer said. “Regardless of what’s going on with the game, you wanna pitch as long as you can, and you wanna come out with the lead.”
Scherzer has tossed at least seven innings with two or fewer earned runs allowed without getting the win 29 times over his 10-year career. Fifteen of those (including six losses) have come since 2014.
The prospect of “earning the win” as a pitcher appears to be a significant motivating factor, even if pitchers simultaneously feel that there is little or no use for the stat from an evaluation standpoint.
“It’s kind of a tough question as a starting pitcher to answer because deep down you probably know that there are a lot of other stats that will tell you your worth as a pitcher more than the win,” said three-time NL Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. “But at the same time, if you’re a starting pitcher, it’s hard not to look at your record every single time you go out there.
“Even if you think you’re pitching well, if you see a losing record or if you see a .500 record, it still kind of bothers you. It’s more psychological, probably. It feels good to have a winning record.”
Kershaw has started 35 games in his 10-year career in which he went at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs but didn’t get a win (15 from 2012-13 alone). Ten of those have gone as losses on his record.
“[Pitcher] wins and losses might not be important — and definitely to a sabermetrician they’re not important — but there’s enough of it for me to certainly keep it around,” Kershaw said.
Last season’s ERA leader, Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks, has a different perspective.
“I think there’s a good possibility [the pitcher win] will go away,” said Hendricks, who went 16-8 with a 2.13 ERA in 2016. “I think the utility of it just doesn’t seem to be there compared to the other stats. The game has changed a lot. And with all these new stats, there are so many more numbers. I guess my personality being a little bit more new-school in a way, I think my main feeling is that you’re still going to know whether you won or lost a lot of games you pitched in for the team.”
Two days after weighing in on the subject, Hendricks gave up two earned runs over 6 1/3 innings against the Rockies at Coors Field and took the loss. Despite posting a 1.52 ERA over his past four starts, Hendricks is 1-1 over that span.
Hendricks’ manager, Joe Maddon, has managed the likes of star hurlers such as David Price, Jake Arrieta and Jon Lester. The feeling he gets is that the pitcher win isn’t going anywhere as an official statistic.
“The win is always going to be relevant to a pitcher. Always,” Maddon said. “That’s how they were raised. If you were raised with that mindset, that’s what you’re going to live for. That’s how they evaluate themselves.”
Maddon said that if presented with the choice of recording more pitcher wins with a higher ERA, versus a significantly lower ERA with a lower win total, the starting pitcher would take the higher win total and ERA.
“I would say getting the win is always the end-all for a pitcher,” said Maddon. “I would say 17 [wins] with a 4.00 [ERA] over 12 with a 2.00, they’ll take the 17 with a 4.00.”
Another factor to consider is how even other pitching stats, such as ERA, can be misleading in certain situations.
“Man on third, less than two outs, I’m up 5-0, I’m throwing the ball right down the middle,” said 1988 NL Cy Young Award winner and World Series MVP Orel Hershiser. “I’m trying to complete the game, so I’m trying to keep my pitch count down. So I’m not trying to get a strikeout to save my ERA, which risks a walk, which risks a big inning, which risks the ‘W’ for my team, and me. So my ERA doesn’t matter either at that point. I never really looked at my ERA if it wasn’t to see how my year was overall.”
During his 18-year Major League career, Hershiser went at least seven innings in a start while allowing two or fewer earned runs without getting the win 57 times. Nineteen of those came from 1987-89, a period over which he posted a 2.55 ERA and completed 33 games, but his Dodgers ranked dead-last in the Majors in runs scored.
So what happens to the pitcher win? Will it remain an official statistic, displayed prominently on the marquee at each ballpark ahead of a game as a loose indicator of how well a hurler has thrown? Will it continue to hold its prestige in the future, or will it lose its place as a vestige of a bygone era?
“I think the win or loss shouldn’t go away from a pitcher because it does in some ways start to give us an idea of who are the best ones,” Hershiser said. “It might not be perfect, but there is some correlation.”
“I would be surprised [if the pitcher win went away],” said Maddon. “But listen, I’m not saying [other metrics] are wrong. It’s just the way it is, man. I watch high-def TV now. I don’t watch black-and-white. Everything changes, man. That’s the way it is.”