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The Value In Pitcher Win-Loss Records

I started writing a couple posts yesterday, but they ballooned out of control in a hurry. They were too broad of topics to cover in a blog post. Both had something to do with post-season awards and stats, but there is so much to talk about.

So, let's talk about the stat that matters most right now, a starting pitcher's wins and losses. If Felix Hernandez does not win the Cy Young award, his 12-12 record will likely be the culprit. Watching his starts, it seems so unfair, but is it?

Baseball, like any sport, is about offense and defense. In baseball's case, the pitcher throws the ball to the offense, and then the offense hits it at the defense, or strikes out. Pitching and defense compete against the offense.

Nine players have opportunities to contribute on offense. Nine also have a chance to contribute on defense. Only one pitcher gets a chance to contribute pitching (at one time at least). No matter how important you decide pitching, offense, and defense are relative to each other, the pitcher is going to come out on top as the single most important player on the field at a given moment. It is embedded in the structure of the game.

So, is it all that crazy to think a starting pitcher that works deep into a ballgame contributed most to a win or loss for their team? The position they were put in likely gave them the opportunity to influence the outcome more than any other individual player.

King Felix's numbers certainly suggest a connection between his performance and winning. In games in which Felix received a no decision or loss, his ERA is 3.44, a little over a run higher than his ERA for the season. Felix allows fewer runs in victories, which makes intuitive sense.

In general, it isn't as crazy to look at a starting pitcher's win-loss record as much as the sabermetric community tends to think it is. Starting pitchers, especially ones that pitch deep into ballgames, have more say than anyone else about whether their team wins or loses that day. Thus, giving them the lion's share of credit or blame is not preposterous.

The Cy Young award is supposed to be given to "the most outstanding pitcher." Given the heavy hand that starting pitchers have in a team winning or losing, wouldn't an outstanding pitcher win a bunch more games than they lose?

Felix, with his 12-12 record, should face an uphill battle in  Cy Young voting. His merit should be questioned. It is bold to say that a pitcher who has lost as much as they have won is having an outstanding year.

Felix's Cy Young argument hinges on showing that he is holding up his end of the bargain, despite his win-loss record. My preferred tool for this task is WPA. It measures the odds of a team winning in the current game state. As the game state changes, the odds of winning change. Pitchers and hitters earn positive or negative WPAs based on how the game state changes when they in the batter's box, or on the mound.

WPA is a dangerous statistic to use for individual player analysis because it is driven so much by opportunity and context. However, starting pitchers are given a bigger chance than any other player to impact a game. They consistently perform in a context that allows them to significantly alter a team's chance to win or lose. The only way a starting pitcher does not accumulate a noticeable WPA score is if their team's offense strikes early and blows the opponent out. Conveniently, if that is the case, the starting pitcher will get a victory.

If Felix really is an outstanding pitcher, he should accumulate a high WPA, despite his 12-12 record. If the offense is at fault, the M's chances of winning a game would steadily sink as the offense flails away, but also steadily rebound as Felix tosses scoreless frames. In terms of WPA, Felix would earn positive gains, even as the team's odds of winning sink overall. If Felix really is an outstanding pitcher with his mediocre record, a high WPA is a must.

To date, Felix Hernandez has a 4.67 WPA, the highest total in the American League.

In general, win-loss records for starting pitchers are meaningful. They tend to say more about a starting pitcher than any other part of a team. When they don't, WPA is there to pick up the slack.

Any Cy Young voter leery of Felix's record has good reason to question how good he has been. Hopefully voters diligent enough to question are also diligent enough to search for answers.