In a move destined to rebound terribly on them, Bill and The Common Man have invited me to turn the remarkable trio posting here at The Platoon Advantage into a less-remarkable-because-of-subtraction-by-addition quartet. You may know me in other contexts as the proprietor (since at least 2003!) of Beaneball or the guy who overtweets at @jlwoj. I'm incredibly happy to be here, at least until I get kicked out.
With the entire internet burning to the ground over this piece on WAR by Hippeaux at It's About the Money, Stupid, including reactions from Rob Neyer, Tom Tango, and basically everybody on Twitter questioning motivations, complaining about pseudonyms (which your very own Common Man got involved in), and generally acting like we don't all have work to do, I figure it's time to take on a real menace: Joe Posnanski thinks wins aren't that bad.
Here's the thing: I wouldn't even give this piece the time of day, except that I think it's symptomatic of a weird belief among people who I know know better regarding wins. When you read Bill James and Rob Neyer and Posnanski, you see an awful lot of win-loss records being cited. They're never used as a quality measure, exactly, as evidence that one pitcher is better than another, but still: there they are, on the page, right next to the guy's ERA and his K/BB ratio and all sorts of other vastly more useful numbers.
I think it's time to take a hard-line attitude toward pitcher wins. (And losses! Why does no one ever talk about pitcher losses?) Posnanski wrote "to praise the win not to bury it," but I'm more of a burial kind of guy. And a salt the earth afterward kind of guy. A leave no gravestone guy. So let's bury this.
Here are Posnanski's two reasons for leaving the win around. First, wins are a big part of baseball history. They're "a common language in a time when common language is becoming rarer." Second, "Wins are INTERESTING."
Putting aside the psuedo-social criticism of "common language ... becoming rarer," is there any worse argument than pointing out how something is part of history? Here is a non-exhaustive list of things that are part of baseball's history:
- The reserve clause
- Official racism
- Underhanded pitching
- Balls too dirty to actually see
- Violence against umpires (not so distant history, that one)
- Ty Cobb
To sum up my argument on this first point, then, before moving on to the second: wins are racist.
That leaves this idea that wins are interesting. If wins are interesting, then they need not be relegated to any dustbins. They can be displayed in trophy cases or museums or wherever else we put our good history. And here's the thing about wins being interesting: I would love to agree with Posnanski because I like quirk. I like hitting streaks and Nyjer Morgan and game-ending balks. Wins, though, aren't quirky and interesting with the serious flaw of being misused by those who don't know better. No, wins come with the serious flaw of being entirely incomprehensible from the get-go.
Lots of statistics that describe events that happen on the field have been poorly used over the years, typically by inflating their importance. When a player touches home plate, he gets a run. It means very little about his value, but it is, at least, a description of something he did. When you divide a player's hits by his at-bats, you get his batting average. It also doesn't tell you much about his value, but it does describe a group of events.
Wins, though, aren't even a purported measurement of things that happen on the field. They're an interpretation of events that happen on the field, many (most, actually) of which events happen while the pitcher in question is in the bullpen or the dugout or the showers. Sure, there's a very particular set of rules regarding who gets a win, so we're not out there deciding willy-nilly which pitcher gets credit for the ninth-inning rally the home team puts on. Just because wins are not a subjective interpretation of events (like errors), though, doesn't make them any less an interpretation, or any less flawed. Furthermore, arbitrary objectivity isn't much to write home about: why does a starting pitcher have to go five innings to get a win?
What is it, exactly, about a semi-arbitrary award of credit to one particular pitcher for a team's win or loss that's interesting?
Posnanski puts forward Ivan Nova, who has 15 "wins" and just four "losses" on the season. He writes, "That IS interesting. You can just stop right there." No! No you can't stop right there! Who told you that you could stop right there? You have to tell me why that is interesting! What does the wins total tell you that piques your interest? You can't just assert that 15 wins for Ivan Nova is interesting, write 600 words comparing Nova to Jeff Francis, and boom now we're all convinced that his wins total is interesting.
I don't want to have to do this, but Posnanski has pushed me to it: baseball is meaningless enough as it is. It provides a certain number of people with jobs, it gives the rest of us something to watch on TV, and it makes a convenient excuse to go sit in a park with 20,000 other people on a Saturday afternoon, but it doesn't mean anything. Maybe it's the height of silliness, then, to argue that meaningless statistics in this meaningless game should go away and die, but seriously: if wins are interesting, then everything is interesting; and if everything is interesting, then nothing is interesting; and if nothing is interesting, then why are we watching baseball at all?
Don't kill baseball, Joe Posnanski.