Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Wins are awful

By Jason Wojciechowski

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:
This is a standard argument form I'm following, I realize, and I'm sad that I have to pull it out against Posnanski, but there it is. History is frequently bad. Wins being part of history should not sway us toward continuing to use them just because everyone in 1972 thought Steve Carlton's 27-win season was awesome. The phrase "relegated to the dustbin of history" exists for a reason: some things are better left behind.

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.


William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Nicely done. And welcome to the core of great writers here.

That said, I think it is possible to enjoy a stat like the "win" as long as we understand what metrics really matter. I don't agree that "wins" is in the same category as underhand pitching and racism.

The funny thing about wins and runs batted in is that we scorn them unless the guy on our team is leading the league in them.

Whaty What? said...

As much as I think wins are about useless, this article is even more so: 'as long as you don’t try to read too much into them. And by “too much,” I guess what I really mean is: “anything.”'

Anonymous said...


You missed one correlary. Wins are interesting. And bad pitchers don't amass a lot of them. So are they the best stat? not even close. Are they the worst? Not really either. Plus posnanski writes better than you. Ooo ad hominem attack ftl

TT said...

Baseball is all about winning games. Not imaginary games in a different universe, but the real games actually played in this one. In baseball, the best team is the team with the best record.

A lot of things go into a pitcher getting a win. Some can be measured, some can't. Which is actually why wins matter. They reflect things that can't be measured in any other way.

You can argue that the pitcher has nothing to do with whether a team wins. But, frankly, that would be stupid. Or you can claim you can accurately measure all the pitcher's contributions to winning, so measuring wins is useless. That would be equally stupid.

Jason Wojciechowski said...

"They reflect things that can't be measured in any other way."

Which things? If we can identify the things that wins are measuring that aren't being measured by any other statistic, then I'm happy to use wins.

My view right now, of course, is that non-pitcher activity (run-scoring, defense, opposing pitcher, bullpen) is attributed to the pitcher who gets a "win" in such great degree that it swamps the value of whatever information is contained in the "win" that isn't available in any other statistic. But I'm willing to be swayed the other way.

Also, Anonymous, I'm not sure there is a worse stat. Saves, maybe? QB rating?

Bill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill said...

Congrats (time to learn that word, phone) to Jason o writing one of the better posts on here and getting many of our dumbest comments.

The "teams want to win games, so pitcher 'wins' matter" argument is so incredibly and obviously weak it makes me want to stop associating with people altogether.

That said, I do kind of find wins "interesting" as part of the story of a season. I have no clue why. And I'd nominate saves, blown saves, and (especially) holds as worse stats.

Buddyg said...

"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?"

Never mind Poz's Nova example, how about a 30-0 pitching record - can we at least agree that would be an 'interesting' stat? How about a player getting 700 PA's without an RBI? Excuse me for being obvious here, but I think that Poz's point here is simply that extreme stats tend to raise eye brows, and regardless of what you think of the stat in question or how it is defined, Nova's win-loss record is at least somewhat extreme in comparison to others pitchers.

I doubt anyone reading this find win totals to be important or very useful, and certainly I don't, but your casual dismissal of Poz's take on what defines an interesting stat is pretty uninteresting. Perhaps you're taking this viewpoint because you genuinely believe "baseball is meaningless enough as it is"?

The Baseball Idiot said...

How do you discuss the past without a common reference point to the present?

Jason Wojciechowski said...

Mr. Idiot -- all the stats smart people have created in the last decade apply backwards. We can talk about Steve Carlton's WAR just as well as we can Carl Pavano's. You're right: we do need reference points. I just don't think we need to use the same points that were the state of the art in the '70s to continue evaluating or describing the '70s.

Buddyg -- I'd like to think that my dismissal wasn't casual. I didn't find that Posnanski actually offered a take on what makes wins interesting -- he just said they were, and that's what I was really responding to.

I agree that extreme things can be eye-catching and interesting, but I think there still has to be some meaning underlying the extremeness for me to care. An absurd example: I invent Jason_Wins -- you get one if you leave the third inning with a lead. I find that Pitcher X managed 18 straight Jason_Wins to start the year. Is that interesting? Maybe to some people, but if I had to guess, I'd say that it's probably not interesting to enough people to declare it interesting.

Dan said...

I think the fact that we're talking about wins right here and right now means they are interesting? :-P

Kidding aside, nice article. I don't agree with 100% of it, but still a fun read.

I wouldn't worry about Joe Posnanski killing baseball either - he seems to be a pretty cool dude and knows a lot about the game.

The Baseball Idiot said...

WAR is great for Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens and Randy Johhson.

Maybe even Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton or Sandy Koufax.

Those guys had seasons that we either saw in person, or television, or are recent enough history that we can comprehend what they did measuring it by WAR.

While you can put a value for WAR on pitchers like Matthewsen, ALexander, Brown, Johnson, Young, Grove, or Spahn, it just doesn't translate.

Wins, ERA, shutouts, and innings pitched might not be the best indicator of greatness, but they are a better reference point for comparing pitchers across era's.

WAR is 21st century.

Wins are 20th century.

Just like you can't travel back in time to a time machine that doesn't exist, you can't properly use WAR to evaluate Lefty Grove.

WAR is the future, not the past, and you need a common reference point.

The Baseball Idiot said...

Just to further clarify, you can sit down today and watch the game, and understand replacement player levels.

We don't have a clue what it was in 1931.

But I know a 30-win season when I see it.

buddyg said...

You could have saved yourself some time here by just writing: "I don't find pitcher victories interesting." To fulfill a minimum word count you could copy/paste that sentence a few dozen times. Maybe you could set up some kind of automated process that queries other baseball blogs for pitcher win-loss references, then generates this post again with a new random title like "So & so is wrong again". That would leave you more free time to follow things you actually find interesting:-).