Since last week’s announcement of the National (San Francisco Giant ace Tim Lincecum, 15-game winner) and American League (Kansas City Royal pitcher Zack Grienke, 16-game winner) Cy Young Award winners, a bubbling debate has begun over the value of a “win” placed on a pitcher’s statistical line.
Sports Illustrated columnist Joe Posnanski to suggested, “the win is dead … why would anyone count on something as vague and misleading as wins?”
The win is dead? Say it ain’t so Joe. No, forget it, I will. The win is not dead. Baseball fans, writers and players have been introduced to a new wave of pitching statistics over the past two decades: VORP, WHIP, FIP, WPA, etc. Each have their place and value, but none have killed the win.
While the sabermatrician was busying developing, deploying and marketing their metrics, the strategy of the game, the way players are used and valued has evolved, none more evident than pitching.
Once built to throw 120 or more pitches per start, today’s starter now hits the 100-pitch plateau and bells, whistles and sirens begin sounding. That usually happens around the sixth inning. Complete game? Good morning, good afternoon and good night.
Randy Johnson was the last pitcher to have 10 or more complete games in a single season. That was 10 years ago, in 1999, when he pitched 12 complete games. Over a decade spanning from 1976-1986, the NL pitcher had five pitchers with 20 or more complete games, the AL had six pitchers with 20 or more complete games. Those number have been sliced in half.
Why? Is the complete game dead? No. The game has evolved. Starting pitchers are no longer built to pitch nine innings. Teams are now spending millions for closers, setup men and sixth and seventh inning specialists. The Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Sandy Koufax, Juan Marichal days are over, but the complete game is not dead. The modern day pitcher has been re-invented. The complete game is a luxury item.
This brings us back to wins.
A starting pitcher must complete five innings to qualify for a win. Today’s starting pitchers are making fewer starts (usually every fifth day instead of every fourth day), pitching fewer innings and throwing fewer pitches. Hence, the window of opportunity to qualify for a win is significantly diminished.
Since 1994 only five of the 16 National League Cy Young Award winners had won 20 or more games. Since 2000, three of the last 10 pitchers have won 20 or more games. In the American League 10 of the last 16 Cy Young winners also recorded 20 or more wins. Since the turn of the century, six of the last 10 won AL winners won 20 games.
In 2009, Lincecum pitched 225 innings and won 15 games. Ten years earlier, in 1999, Randy Johnson pitched 271 innings and won 17 games. Johnson pitched 46 more innings for two more wins.
This does not require any complicated math to compute, just common sense. The former 20-game winners are today’s 16, 17 or 18-game winners. Not only is the win not dead, the value of the win has become a commodity, in a statistical category clearly suffering from attrition.