Detroit Tigers Manager Jim Leyland is at it again when discussing the role of statistics when evaluating the season a player is having. More specifically, the role statistics shouldn’t play when evaluating his players.
Earlier this season, during the All-Star break, Leyland caught some flak for selecting Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Chris Tillman over New York Yankees starter Hiroki Kuroda because Tillman had 11 wins at the time and Tillman clearly knows how to win, right? The below comment is from Leyland explaining his reasoning.
I looked at it very thoroughly, and at the end of the day, I added Tillman because I just felt like ... I’d almost be embarrassed not to take a guy that’s 11-3 to the All-Star Game ... I thought he deserved it. I think when you have 11 wins by the All-Star break, I think that’s pretty hard to keep a guy off.
Fast-forward to an ESPN article highlighting the fact that Max Scherzer has received the most run support of any pitcher in the majors at 5.79 runs per game. Don’t get me wrong-- and this was stated in this article-- Scherzer is having an absolutely amazing season, but he’s also gotten a lot of help from his offense along the way.
His 19-2 record is certainly impressive on the surface, and when we look a little deeper and see that his ERA/FIP of 2.88/2.72 places him third in the American League, his 5.7 WAR puts him second behind only the 5.8 WAR Felix Hernandez has, and the fact that he’s striking out 28.3% of batters -- which happens to be second in the American League behind Yu Darvish -- then yes, Max Scherzer has been dominating all who dare oppose him this season.
However, when the matter of run support is brought up to Leyland he’s dismissive of statistics outside of wins telling him something meaningful, apparently, and it begins to border on the legen-wait for it-dary mantra of Hawk Harrelson’s "will to win".
I don't believe in any of that stuff," Leyland said. "I won't listen to any of it and have no interest in talking about it. You can figure out whatever you want. My view of pitchers' stats is this: Did he give us a chance to win? If he did that on any kind of consistent basis for me, then he's a very good pitcher.
But I also like guys that win. I'd rather have a pitcher nobody is talking about who has won 15 games than somebody everyone is raving about who has won five. I'm a baseball manager, not a statistician. I'm wasting my time talking about it.
For clarification, all a pitcher win tells us is that the starting pitcher pitched at least five innings and exited the game with the lead. If a pitcher wins a game, starter or otherwise, all it means is that they were the pitcher of record when their team took the lead. Part of what helps a pitcher win a game is their team’s offense scoring more runs than their pitcher allows before he exits.
In 2003 Andy Pettitte won 21 games with the Yankees while posting a 4.02 ERA (his FIP was a respectable 3.35), but a large part of the reason why his record reflects 21 wins is because the Yankees offense scored 4.94 runs per game on average in his starts.
In 2002 Barry Zito went 23-5 with the Oakland Athletics while putting up a 2.75 ERA, even though his FIP was a much higher 3.75. Over his 35 starts the A’s offense averaged 4.94 runs for him, thus helping ensure his record went largely untarnished.
Bringing things back to Scherzer specifically, he has made six starts where he allowed four or more runs. In three of those starts he ‘earned’ the win, in two of those starts he received a no-decision, and in just one of those starts he took the loss on his record.
If Scherzer were pitching for a team that had just a league average offense, the odds of him being at 19 wins by now--if he were to reach the mark at all-- are rather low. His current win-loss record is more likely to reflect an appropriate 13-8 mark--I’m guessing, in case you were wondering if I used any science for that-- which would then be unimpressive through the eyes of Jim Leyland.
I’m all for defending your player or your team; I’m even in support of finding ways to craft arguments to suggest one of your players is the best at what he does. However, to refuse to acknowledge the fact that your pitcher’s win-loss record is helped out by the run support he receives is to refute logic and common sense. Also--side note--Leyland is using statistics when looking at Scherzer’s win total and using that metric as a means to discuss how great he has been on the mound -- albeit, just not a very good statistic to use in that manner.
No, it’s not Scherzer’s fault that the Tigers offense scores a lot of runs when he is on the mound. If I were a starting pitcher and my team scored a lot of runs for me, well, it’s something that would be greatly appreciated because all that matters is the team wins.
For any manager or baseball analyst to suggest that Scherzer is more deserving of the Cy Young, or any other accolades this season, because he has the "will to win" or any other silly notions about his win-loss record mattering more than the metrics that really dive into his actual performance is irresponsible when evaluating the game and said players. It’s also unfair to the players who aren’t quite as fortunate as Scherzer is to pitch for a really good team that scores a lot of runs for him.
Instead of using wins as any useful measure of talent, let’s instead begin using--with some regularity--metrics such as WPA (Win Probability Added). We could reference swinging strike rate when talking about strike out pitchers or pitchers with great ‘stuff’, and if you’re going to talk about someone being clutch or having a history of clutchiness please take a look at the clutch numbers on Fangraphs first.
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All statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.
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