A Dumb Rule

The All-Time Leader in Lost Wins

It’s amazing the number of times I go to the Internet to find the exact phrasing of some quote I want to use, only to discover that I’m completely wrong about who said it. The management guru Peter Drucker is famous for the line: “What gets measured gets managed,” which he apparently never said and which was better stated anyway by a journalist (Simon Caulkin) summarizing a 1956 article by VF Ridgway as:

“What gets measured gets managed — even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so”.

Those of you who follow my opinions (all none of you) will remember that I think the Win stat is baseball is near-useless.  But as long as we have it, people are going to manage to it, so it should be as good a measure as we can make it.  In this note I propose one change that will improve it in the current climate, is easy to re-calculate retrospectively and makes very few changes in those retrospective adjustments: elimination of the innings requirement for starting pitchers.

The 5 inning requirement is an outlier for a lot of reasons. It is the only stat I can think of (other than perhaps the qualifying minimums for seasonal titles) that it based on an expectation, that starting pitchers ought to go 5 innings before we really think of them as starters. But even if that was the expectation once, it is less so now and has been falling dramatically as we shall see. But if we were to go on expectations, why not a one inning minimum for anyone to get a win? Or at least one pitch? And when the minimum isn’t met, we substitute a purely subjective call for the win. Why not just allow a subjective call for every game? Case 1: starting pitcher goes 4 2/3, giving up no runs, leaving with a 22-0 lead. Every subsequent pitcher gives up 3 runs and the team wins 22-21. Case 2: starting pitcher goes 8 giving up 20 runs, leaving the bases loaded and the team up 20-19 and nobody out. The next guy comes in and strikes out all three batter he faces. You want to give the win to the starter? Both of these cases are highly unrealistic, of course, but I can think of lots of times that it would make more sense for the Official Scorer to assign a win, just like he or she assigns hits and errors. But assuming we’re not going to do that, let’s just eliminate the 5 inning rule for starters.

In the Retrosheet event database (1920-2019) there are 328,844 starting pitchers in games.  Of these, only 10,259 (about 3%) left with a lead before completing 5 innings.  And of those, only 3,361 (which I call the ‘lost wins’) times did his team not subsequently lose the lead in the game. (In some of the other games, the starting pitcher actually got the loss, since runners left on base when he left reversed the score and the lead never changed hands again.)

As one might expect, this effect was fairly minor for a long time but has become much more common lately.  Here is a graph:

From 1920-2014, the lost win rate has been pretty constant at about 1% of starts.  There was a bump in the mid-1950’s for some reason. (I’m going to assume it was not people taking note of VF Ridgway’s article.)  But the number has begun to take off.  The three highest rates in history were 2017-2019, and each of those years was higher than the one before.  The 2019 rate as triple the historic average, at around 3% of all starts.  (I don’t have the 2020 data, but I’m not sure I’d use it even if I had it.)

No one thinks that wins for relievers are meaningful.  Indeed, reliever wins are very often the result of bad pitching rather than good pitching, when a reliever blows a save but his team takes the lead in the next inning. Many other reliever wins are pure chance; whoever is in when the lead changes hands gets the win no matter how many pitchers pitched as well or better.  The Braves’ 1-0 13 inning over the Reds in the first game of the playoffs saw the Braves use 8 pitchers, not one of whom yielded a run.  Minter got the win because he happened to be the pitcher when the Braves finally scored.  His performance was not readily distinguishable from anyone else’s that day.

But we persist in thinking that starting pitcher’s wins are important.  But especially in today’s game, they mostly reflect (a) an ability of the pitcher’s team to take a lead early, which is correlated with the pitcher’s own prowess, but in a highly context-dependent way; and (b) the ability to hold a lead, which has little to do with the starting pitcher at all, as Jacob deGrom can readily attest. 

It is true that starting pitcher wins are positively correlated overall with most other measures of pitcher’s performance, but we have those other measures of performance.  It is certainly unclear that wins have any independent value above that given by ERA, ERA+, FIP, WHIP, WAR and the like.  And while the latter 4 are newfangled sabermetric measures, ERA has been around forever.  It is indeed difficult to see anything provided by wins and losses for a starting pitcher that isn’t provided by the traditional stats of ERA, starts and innings pitched as a starter.  (That last one is sometimes a little difficult to come by for pitchers who both start and relieve, to be fair.  But adding wins and losses doesn’t help, since that generally includes wins and losses in both roles as well.)

Unsurprisingly, the pitcher with the most lost wins is Ryne Stanek.  In 2018-2019, before being traded to the Marlins,  Stanek made 56 starts and pitched a total of 83 innings in those starts.  His record was 0-3, but he left 9 times in which the Rays had a lead they never relinquished.  Frankly, a career record of 9-3 as a starter makes a lot more sense for Stanek than 0-3.  He had a ERA of 2.71, a WHIP of 1.06 and a K/BB ratio of 3.29 in those starts.  But in any case our understanding of Ryne Stanek, or indeed any pitcher, will not be hopelessly corrupted by handing out a few wins.

In the Retrosheet Era through 2019,  there are only 65 pitchers who would gain as many as 5 wins in their careers.  Here is the list:

This list is a mix of current players like Stanek, some starter/relievers who made a number of spot starts like Mike Bielecki,  and a few guys with really long careers like Jim Kaat, Lefty Grove and Andy Pettite.  I’m not sure there is much to be learned from this, and these are the top ‘lost win’ guys of all time.  Maybe Tim Hudson’s HOF case would be augmented slightly by making him 227-133 rather than 222-133, but I doubt it.

One argument against my proposal is that it will allow teams who use a bunch of openers to vulture wins for them.  For openers who only go one or two innings, though, the effect is pretty minor.  Your team has to take the lead in those first two innings and hold it for the remaining seven.  It certainly happens, but it is much harder to do than it appears.  Take Tampa Bay in 2019.  They had 73 games in which the starter did not go 5 innings, by far the most in MLB.  Most of those were opener games.  The opener left the game ahead in only 21 of those games, and in only 10 of those games did Tampa Bay win the game without ceding the lead. (6 of those are 2/3rds of Stanek’s lost wins.)

Against the objection lies a counter-objection: teams who keep a pitcher in the game only for the win.  The third game of this year’s NLCS, in which Julio Urías went 5 innings with a 15 run lead, even though, as one of LA’s most effective pitchers, his contributions to a potential LA NLCS would almost surely be higher in higher-leverage situations; he wasn’t able to show that until Game 7. (Admittedly, it’s hard to do much better than he did, but they might have won in fewer games if he’d been available earlier.) But to pull him would be to deny him a win, and this slight might well overwhelm the ultimate best interests of the team. I’m not saying Dave Roberts was wrong to let Urías pitch 5 innings — perhaps the psychological damage by denying him the win exceeded the increase in the Dodgers’ chances. But were the 5 inning rule not in place, and Urías would not have to sacrifice a win from an earlier departure, the costs of pulling him would have been lower.

We have no similar qualms on the other end of the game. A guy who pitches 4 2/3 innings of shutout ball with a one run lead doesn’t get a save if they bring in somebody else to get the last out. We don’t condition consecutive game hitting streaks on how many at-bats you have. Even the seasonal minimum rules have exceptions: you can qualify for the batting title if you’re short the required number of at-bats if assuming an out for every one of those at-bats would still get you the title.

Since we already regard wins by relievers as barely relevant, correcting the record by subtracting wins from whomever got them seems to be no problem.  Overall, I see no reason at all why this rule should be retained, why the number of wins for starting pitchers shouldn’t be augmented retrospectively to make this change.  And the best part: Chip Caray will have to think of something useful to say about a pitcher’s performance in the 3rd-5th innings.

Author: JonathanF

Alive since 1956. Braves fan since 1966. The first ten years were pretty much wasted. Exiled to Yankees/Mets territory in 1974 --- bearable only with TBS followed by MLB.TV.

20 thoughts on “A Dumb Rule”

  1. Van Lingle Mungo!

    This was actually a really interesting piece for me, but rather than merely relaxing the innings requirement, I’d also request to relax the “game started” requirement.

    There are precisely two elements of the win rules that I like, both subjective. First, if the starter does not go five innings, but there are no lead changes, then the official scorer chooses which reliever deserves the win. Second, if a reliever’s appearance is deemed “brief and ineffective,” they may be denied the win even if they were the pitcher of record and it may be awarded to a subsequent pitcher.

    (I just learned about the “brief and ineffective” rule when I went to double-check the win rules on mlb.com. Never heard of it before.)

    Following those rules to their logical end, now that we can see the value of openers and perceive that a “starter” is as artificial a concept as the pitcher win, why should there be any presumption that barring any lead changes, a pitcher must have started the game to be in line for the win?

  2. Nicely done JonathanF. I agree with you and would be perfectly fine with retroactively changing pitcher records all the way back to 1920 according to some adjustments like this or similar to it. It reflects the change in pitcher usage to make win distribution more equitable since the dead ball era levels. We will never see anything remotely resembling those innings pitched, games started, and hence win totals, from the game that was played then. Anything done that is fair and levels the playing field just a little is good in my opinion. It really won’t drastically change the perception or hof candidacy of any one pitcher as you point out but provides better context and perspective for those who played the game since 1920. We all know the game was drastically different before that and those perceptions don’t need any adjustment. And as you point out it’s getting more extreme. As pitcher usage continues to evolve further towards one end of the spectrum it will become even more important to reflect wins more accurately where they belong by not assigning them on rules made when the usage pattern was at the opposite end of the spectrum.

  3. Sorry, but I’m a dissenter. Do you like the game, or just trying to change the way it’s been seen for ages? All of this change for change’s sake, is about as questionable as you think the win stat is. Many stats were added when the game was in it’s relative infancy. The game has changed dramatically, cyclically ever since. It’s still changing. I find the game very entertaining to follow, and I don’t need any new stats or velocity tags to enjoy it.

  4. Thanks, as always, AAR and BraveMarine. As I think I indicated, I’d have no problem with making the winner and losing pitchers entirely at the hand of the official scorer of the game. Wins and losses would then be just like errors. And just like errors, I doubt many decisions would be all that controversial, or meaningful, in our assessments of players. But the five inning rule ties the hands of the official scorer, and I don’t see the point of the constraint.

    And Freddy_Ballgame, I’m fine with dissent. The attribution of wins to pitchers does not in any way interfere with my enjoyment of baseball, except when announcers harp on it.

  5. I also dissent. Any pitcher that goes 20-0 is always going to be better than one that goes 0-20 no matter how he pitched in those 20 games.

    I’m also against anything that would lead to all 30 teams playing baseball the way the Tampa Bay Rays do, which I absolutely despise. I cannot stand them. I hate openers, I hate trading all of your best players before they get paid, I hate it all. All of it.

    I hope the Dodgers win this series so that other teams don’t emulate this nonsense anymore than they already do.

  6. I cannot say I often find myself in 100% agreement with Chief but he knocked this one out of the park. go Dodgers!

  7. There are a lot of young baseball fans that are more interested in statistics than they are baseball. Baseball is about wins and losses, hits and runs. Strikeouts and walks. Anything else is mostly just noise. The best baseball players are good in the good categories and the worst ones are equally as bad.

    I enjoy Fangraphs, SABR and the like as much as most (some), but IMO, its taking over the game in a way that is IMO harming it. The Rays play this way because they are cheap, and play in a mausoleum and have no fans. They don’t do it because its the best or ONLY way.

  8. @5,7

    I don’t think anything I said contradicts any of your strongly held opinions, Chief, so I’m not sure what you’re dissenting to exactly. Yes, there are no 20-0 pitchers who are worse than 0-20 pitchers: the correlation between wins and the other, better indices of pitcher quality assures that. But surely you grant that that Jacob deGrom is way better than his won-lost record, right, and better than just about any other pitcher in history with a similar record. That’s unrelated to my proposal here (he has no lost wins) but do you disagree?

    As to the Rays’ strategic use of openers, I guess I don’t feel all that strongly about it one way or the other, but I certainly don’t feel it has been proven to be the only way to play, or the best, and it is surely dependent on your personnel.

    Finally, trading people before you have to pay them, or letting them walk, is definitely a process guaranteed to alienate your fans. The only saving grace for it is that it would be impossible for all 30 teams to do it, since then there would be no one to pay the stars.

  9. There are a lot of young baseball fans that are more interested in statistics than they are baseball.

    I’ve heard this said, but I’ve never seen any evidence of it. I don’t buy it.

  10. Interesting discussion. Which of you historians can tell me when and where the notion of attributing wins to individuals came into being? It seems contrary to the nature of team sports to designate an individual pitcher as the “winner.” Why isn’t the shortstop that booted the easy grounder to let the winning run score called the loser?

    As always, JonathanF, you made me think. Thanks, I guess.

  11. That’s a really good question and I don’t know. My first thought was to blame Henry Chadwick, but I’ve never heard him described having invented the concept of the individual win. It may predate our knowledge of an individual creator, like the fabled 1837 rulebook.

  12. Thanks, coop, as always. To answer your question (and for anyone who really wants to go into detail on this):

    https://sabr.org/journal/article/origin-of-the-modern-pitching-win/

    The win was invented in 1884 by Henry Chadwick and he published National League individual totals in the 1885 Spalding Guide. The practice did not catch on. The loss came later. On July 7, 1888, The Sporting News for the first time published win-loss records, and only then after the following disclaimer:

    It seems to place the whole game upon the shoulders of the pitcher and I don’t believe it will ever become popular even with so learned a gentleman as Mr. Chadwick to father it. Certain it is that many an execrable pitcher game is won by heavy hitting at the right moment after the pitcher has done his best to lose it.

  13. While you’re right, Alex, that the “briefly and ineffectively” clause does exist, I don’t recall ever seeing it used. Based on the current standard, a pitcher would basically have to come into a game with two outs in an inning and proceed to get crapped on for multiple runs (like, his own runs…not just Grybos) before recording the final out, then have his team immediately take the lead. And it would have to not be the final inning, as if it was, there is no subsequent pitcher and you would have to give the win to the crappy guy. Essentially, this clause is not getting used for the guy who gets all three outs in an inning but gives up a couple runs or something. Of course, I hear you asking, “Why not use it more liberally, then?” To which I would probably agree. But just pointing out that it currently is not.

  14. Interesting article. I’m not sure I would agree with retroactively awarding wins to long-ago starters who pitched fewer than 5 innings. While they pitched well enough to help their teams win, by leaving so early, they put a strain on their teams’ bullpens, which were smaller back then. They may not deserve as much credit as the pitchers who made it through 7 or however many innings.

  15. That’s a fair point, JamesD84. But take a look at the SABR article above, which I hadn’t read when I wrote this up, they’ve been fiddling with wins for years. I didn’t go back and look, but I think a fair number of the pre-1950 lost wins weren’t lost wins at all, because the league made all sorts of exceptions in handing out wins.

    In any case, though, the retrospective win point is really separate. It would be better to change the rule today, even if you didn’t go back and change the old records.

  16. Good piece about the layoffs throughout baseball.

    https://theathletic.com/2160374/2020/10/26/mlb-owners-lay-off-hundreds-as-revenues-plummet-drastically-changing-the-sport/

    My own views are consistent with what I’ve said for years; I think it’s shameful as well as short-sighted. But the suits are only doing what they’ve always done, raking in as much profit as they can with as little obligation as can be managed. The last paragraph really kills me, though:

    “The bottom line is you have a lot of people who have given a [crap] ton to the game who have no other skill set, or no other obvious skill set, who are being pushed out into the workforce probably never to work in baseball again,” the executive said. “And you know, being pushed into like the worst job market in a century. So, it’s not good.”

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