Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Dear Members of the Flat-Earth Society

It bothers me a great deal to think that such a large percentage of my prospective wedding party still believes in the legitimacy of win-loss records and RsBI. But I once argued, in earnest, that Christian Laettner was the best college basketball player ever. So, it's not like I haven't said dumb things about sports.

But, for fuck's sake, I just don't get it with you people. But I'm going to take the stance of a biology teacher in Kansas here: Whether you rubes like it or not, I'm teaching evolution.

From wikipedia's entry on causality:
  1. "Causality postulates that there are laws by which the occurrence of an entity B of a certain class depends on the occurrence of an entity A of another class, where the word entity means any physical object, phenomenon, situation, or event. A is called the cause, B the effect.
  2. "Antecedence postulates that the cause must be prior to, or at least simultaneous with, the effect.
  3. "Contiguity postulates that cause and effect must be in spatial contact or connected by a chain of intermediate things in contact." (Born, 1949, as cited in Sowa, 2000)
I bring this into the conversation because it has very much to do with the nature of wins and losses as a measure of a pitcher's value. I'll get into the definition of value, as it pertains to baseball, in a second. But first, it's important to notice that, judging by these very logical conditions for causality to exist, a pitcher should not be held solely responsible for a win or loss.

A starting pitcher, in the eyes of many, has the ability to control what happens in half of the innings he pitchers (removing the element of a pitcher going to bat in the NL, which doesn't really serve anyone's argument at this point). But that's not really the case at all. A pitcher really only has singular control over three possible outcomes that can take place on his watch:

1) A strikeout
2) A walk
3) A home run

Anything else that can possibly happen while a pitcher on the mound (save a balk or a wild pitch, but again, that's not serving anyone's argument here) requires the presence of a variable outside of a pitcher's control, with the two leading candidates being the defense around him and luck. Yes, luck. There's an extended amount of research done by people who live in the basement of their parents' houses (literally) that proves that a pitcher has little influence over what happens to a batted ball once it's hit. Some years, guys have an inordinate number of bingles fall against them. The next year, every line drive conveniently gets hit directly at an overpaid corner outfielder. And, obviously, there are degrees in between those two extremes in which the vast majority of pitchers exist. That's simply the nature of the position.

However, judging pitchers is far from a coin toss, provided you view them with respect to what it is they do regardless of whether or not they have an infield of Todd Walkers or Omar Vizquels. Pitchers who have high strikeout numbers have an advantage because they rely on fielders less. Pitchers who walk fewer batters have an advantage because there will be fewer people on base if they get unlucky or give up a jack (see: Curt Schilling). And pitchers who give up a lot of home runs are pretty much fucked, unless they do a lot of other shit awesome.

Judging a pitcher using other measures isn't wrong; it's just that you have to accept that you cannot judge them without taking into account their setting. So, often, it's more beneficial to try and remove as many outside variables as possible when judging a pitcher's value, particularly if you're judging them with the idea of trading for them or signing them to a free agent contract. And this is where Freddy Garcia comes into the conversation.

It bears mentioning that I never said Garcia was a bad pitcher; I said, simply, that he was mediocre. Justin has argued with me that I'm saying mediocre when I should be saying average. I don't see much of a distinction, but I'll acquiesce. Freddy Garcia is average, as demonstrated by his season in 2006.

The one stat in which Garcia was above-average, however, was wins. He had 17. That's great. But what does it mean? Mostly, it means that Garcia played for a pretty good team, one that many years would have earned a Wild Card berth. The White Sox scored, on average, 5.36 runs per game. So, it was clearly an above-average offense, which means that an average pitcher can expect to win the majority of his starts. So, does Garcia's 17-win season indicate "value," as Justin would suggest? I fail to see how.

In 2005, Roger Clemens put together an all-time season, without question the second-best of his career. His 1.87 ERA and 1.01 WHIP were totally sick. He struck out a ton of guys. His G/F ratio was 1.41, well above league average. In short, he did everything you could possibly ask a pitcher to do, and he didn't suffer from any bad luck, either. He had as close to a "perfect" season as a pitcher could hope to have.

Yet he had 13 wins. Thirteen fucking wins. And, if I'm to believe certain people who read and/or write in this blog, I'm supposed to believe that wins are an indication of value? That's one totally dumb way to define value.

Value, for any player, has to do with how much he contributes to a team's winning expectancy. There was no pitcher in the major leagues that year, with the possible exception of Santana, that gave his team a better chance to win, consistently, than Clemens did. He did everything he possibly could. His value was that he gave a horseshit team with a horseshit offense the opportunity to win while scoring only two runs, on average. The worst offense in the major leagues that season, the Washington Senators, scored 3.94 runs per game. Someone tell me what's wrong with this picture.

And Clemens isn't the only example of how a great pitcher can have total shit luck when it comes to W/L records. Look at the three leaders in the NL Cy Young race this year; you telling me those guys didn't put up the kinds of numbers one would expect to lead to 20 wins? But none of them had a higher win total than Garcia, who possessed downright pedestrian stats otherwise.

Is this starting to make sense? I sure hope so, because if it doesn't, then I'm convinced you're retarded.

As for Ryan's red herring, "How many bad pitchers win 17 games?" (emphasis mine). Simple: not many, because it's easier to earn a loss than it is a win. If a pitcher gives up seven runs, he's probably going to lose, unless his offense totally bails him out. So, it's plainly obvious that bad pitchers can't really be expected to do much of anything good. But proving the contrapositive does not prove the positive. I don't think I really need to explain that further.

I'm tired now. How about the Meche signing? Now the Eaton deal is only the third-worst free agent pitcher signing of the offseason.

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