Note: this piece is not about Cleveland sports per se, though it is about the responsibility of one Cleveland sportswriter in particular. Consider yourself warned.
I’ve been debating about whether to respond to this piece in last weekend’s Plain Dealer, but considering that Paul Hoynes writes to a massive and impressionable audience, I think it’s probably worth the time and energy.
In the linked piece, Hoynes suggests that the only stat that matters for a pitcher is wins, and therefore, the Cy Young award should be given to the pitcher with the most wins in his respective league. He cites last year’s winners (Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum, with 16 and 15 wins respectively) as evidence that “[t]he value of the win has been devalued by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who favor statistics meant to remove all influences on the pitcher except himself.” He thinks this is bad.
Needless to say, I disagree. And I’m a little offended. So offended, in fact, that I tore the piece apart, line-by-line, in firejoemorgan.com style. But that’s not going to do anybody any good. So instead, I’ll try to refute Hoynes’ point without being a snarky jerk.
His point, as best I can tell, is that the game is about winning, so why shouldn’t we ultimately award the pitcher with the most wins—after all, that’s the point of baseball.
I actually agree with this — at least the part about the supremacy of winning. It’s why so many baseball fans try to figure out how teams win games. That’s what ERA is for, after all: pitchers with low ERAs tend to help their teams win more. That’s why we measure home runs and RBI—players with a lot of each help their team win games. That’s why some really smart people have tried to estimate how many wins certain players add to their teams (WAR). It’s why we spend time trying to separate defense from pitching (FIP and UZR). We do all this because we know that good players help their teams win games. It’s not to torture people with math or to self-aggrandize ourselves with important-sounding acronyms. We do it because we love baseball and thinking about its intricacies. Some of us even write about these newer ways of thinking, with the hope that other people will see that they’re not so scary—they can even be fun.
But there’s a more insidious message in Hoynes’ piece that needs refuting: the “pitcher-win” is NOT the same thing as a “team win.” A pitcher win is a decision made by the official scorer to give credit (often undue) to one player for the accomplishment of an entire team. It’s a silly and archaic statistic. Don’t believe me? Check this link out, and tell me with a straight face that the most basic statistic in baseball is the pitcher-win. A team win is much simpler: who scored more runs? They’re NOT NOT NOT NOT NOT the same thing. Hoynes is conflating two very different things, because it makes his argument easier.
Furthermore, just like a lot of other statistics, the pitcher-win is subject to the vagaries of luck, defense, run support and a thousand other things a pitcher doesn’t control. Because of this problem, people have started thinking of better ways to evaluate how well a pitcher really performed. ERA plays into this. Strikeouts play into this. Innings pitched plays into this. And for some, FIP, xFIP, K/BB, and WAR (that’s WINS above replacement) play into this evaluation. These are good things, in my mind. They try to give us a better picture of the things a pitcher can control.
And this isn’t a revolution of bloggers in their mothers’ basements, either. Many newspaper men have adopted the more nuanced ways of thinking about players: Joe Posnanski (formerly of the Kansas City Star), Bernie Miklasz (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), and Dejan Kovacevic (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette), just to name a few, have incorporated statistical advances into their work, and their institutions are better for it. They learned about new evaluations because it is their job to think seriously about baseball. It is their duty to learn about the game and vote for awards after considering all the evidence. It is supposed to be their life’s work. But Hoynes casually dismisses them, because they don’t agree with him in the sanctity of a statistic that is so obviously flawed.
Last season, Greinke led the league in ERA. By a lot. He also led the league in FIP. He also led the league in WAR. He was really, really good—the best pitcher in baseball. Unfortunately, he played for the Royals. Who were really, really bad. In his career, Zack Greinke has made 165 starts. In those starts he has a career ERA of 3.77—better than all but one AL team this season. The Royals have gone 67-98 in those starts (.406). They stink. The fact that Greinke was drafted by the Royals and not the Yankees doesn’t make him any less good.
Same with Tim Lincecum: he led the league in WAR last year; led the league in FIP; led the league in strikeouts; was second in ERA. The Giants had the lowest collective on-base percentage in baseball last season (.305) and managed to score only 655 runs—nearly 300 fewer runs than the Yankees; that paltry offense certainly cost Lincecum some pitcher-wins. But was that his fault?
And this season, voters will be confronted again with a choice between a pitcher with a lot of wins (CC Sabathia) and a pitcher who is statistically better in every way (Felix Hernandez). That’s not even counting the performances of Cliff Lee or Francisco Liriano or the other half-dozen pitchers who have outpitched Sabathia but have had the crummy luck not to play for the only team who will score over 900 runs this season.
Hernandez has pitched more innings with a higher strikeout rate, fewer baserunners (WHIP), a lower ERA, a lower walk-rate, and a higher value (WAR). Hernandez is not arguably better than Sabathia. He IS better.
But Paul Hoynes thinks that even though CC Sabathia is a demonstrably worse pitcher, that he deserves the Cy Young because the Yankees have a great offense.
It is his job to know better.