“Wins” aren’t everything . . .

If you still think the towering Met didn’t earn his back-to-back Cy Young Awards . . .

When Jacob deGrom won back-to-back National League Cy Young Awards despite ten wins the first time and eleven the second, enough of the Old Fart Contingent (OFC from here forward) went nuclear. They’ve really lost it this time, the OFC fumed over the award voters. They still fume, occasionally.

What was Max Scherzer with his three-way-tying eighteen wins, then? What was Miles Mikolas, with the least number of losses among the three with eighteen wins? (And the best winning percentage in the league.) That’s the OFC fuming. The proper question really is, what’s this continuing nonsense about judging pitchers first by their “wins?”

Well, maybe not. The truly proper question is: Name me one pitcher who got all 27 outs in the game all by his lonesome, with no help from the catcher calling his pitches or blocking pitches or spearing potential wild pitches; no help from the fielders behind him. (I could be a real rat and follow it with another question: Name me one pitcher who created and produced every run scored by his team during every one of his “wins.”)

While the crickets continue chirping from the OFC grounds, I’d like to show you a table of three 27-game “winners.” The only other thing this trio has in common is winning the Cy Young Award in those seasons. I’m going to show you their “won-lost” records first:

  W-L
Pitcher A 27-6
Pitcher B 27-9
Pitcher C 27-10

The OFC who looks at the “wins” and “losses” first will tell you Pitcher A was the best of the three when he had his 27-“win” season. Now, will the OFC have a look at the trio’s earned run averages, fielding-independent pitching (FIP; kind of your ERA when your fielders’ work is removed from the equation), strikeouts (screw Crash Davis, missing bats is not fascist), strikeouts per nine innings, and earned runs surrendered? (An [#] means leading the entire Show; a [*] means leading the league.)

  ERA FIP K K/9 ER
Pitcher A 2.95 4.19 127 1.7 78
Pitcher B 1.73# 2.07# 317# 8.8# 62
Pitcher C 1.97* 2.01# 310* 3.6* 76

Pitcher A’s 27-6 doesn’t look quite the leader of the pack now, does it? By the way, Pitcher A received 5.0 runs of support from his team while he was on the mound in his games that season. Pitcher B received 4.0 runs of support while he was on the mound in his 27-winning season. Pitcher C received 3.4 runs of support while he was on the mound in his 27-winning season.

The more runs a pitcher has to work with, the less stressful his day’s work will be, of course. Notice Pitcher A was a little too comfortable, surrendering the most earned runs of the trio while striking out the fewest. Pitcher C worked 26 more innings, approximately, than Pitcher B, and surrendered six more earned runs and struck out seven fewer batters. Pitchers A and C experienced fluke seasons overall; Pitcher B had just pitched his sixth straight season leading the entire Show in FIP.

Pitcher A is Bob Welch. Pitcher B is Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax. Pitcher C (perhaps appropriately) is Steve Carlton. Koufax and Carlton were the no-questions-asked best starting pitchers on their teams. Welch wasn’t. Not even close. As a matter of fact, two starters (including Dave Stewart) and two relievers (including Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley) had better FIPs than Welch in 1990, while the same quartet also had better ERAs.

So how on earth did the 1990 American League Cy Young Award voters give Welch the award? They saw the 27 “wins” and didn’t bother looking at the real indicators of a pitcher’s effectiveness. If they had looked that deep, they would have handed the 1990 American League Cy Young Award to Roger Clemens. (ERA: 1.93; FIP: 2.18; K/BB: 3.87—all of which led the entire Show.)

“In baseball,” wrote Keith Law in Smart Baseball, “team victories matter, but the idea of a single player earning full credit for a win or blame for a loss exposes a deep ignorance of how the game actually plays out on the field.”

If you’ve ever actually watched an actual game of baseball, you know that the sport doesn’t function this way: even a pitcher who throws a perfect game gets some help somewhere—from his defense, from his catcher, and of course from the offense that scored at least one run so he didn’t have to go out and pitch the tenth inning—which happened to Pedro Martinez in 1995 while he was still a Montreal Expo. Pedro threw nine perfect innings against the Padres, but the Expos couldn’t push a run across until the tenth inning; only after that did he qualify for the win despite retiring all 27 batters he’d faced to that point. As the pitcher, Martinez couldn’t have done any more to help his team win the game, but he didn’t “earn” the victory until his teammates scored. This is because the entire thought process that led us to this point, where a starting pitcher gets that credit or blame, is both out of date and very, very stupid.

Don’t you just love watching the OFC temperatures bursting the mercury tubes? Would you like to send them straight into the ionosphere? Let me give you two more pitchers, one of whom won the Cy Young Award in the season in question and the other of whom out-pitched him profoundly:

  W-L ERA FIP K K/9 ER
The Winner 21-8 3.48 3.75 157 6.3 86
The Shoulda Been 16-7 2.87 2.80# 238# 9.2* 74

The winner was Bartolo Colon, 2005. The shoulda-been 2005 winner (if you’re picking strictly starting pitchers) was Johan Santana.

The OFC will tell you those 21 “wins” which led the American League made Colon a no-brainer. (How about one more “loss” than Santana?) The Show-leading FIP and strikeouts, plus the American League-leading 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings and surrendering 12 fewer earned runs, should have told voters Santana was the best starting pitcher in the league that season.

The only American League starter that year who got close to Santana’s ERA was Kevin Millwood, whose 2.86 led the league. But Millwood’s FIP (3.73) was only two points lower than Colon’s; he didn’t miss as many bats as Santana or Colon (146 strikeouts; 6.8 K/9); and, his K/BB ratio (2.81) wasn’t even Colon (3.65), never mind Santana (5.29).

Let’s look in another direction. In 1965, Sandy Koufax pitched a perfect game. Koufax struck fourteen batters out, including striking out the side in the ninth. The remaining thirteen outs came through the courtesy of three ground outs and ten fly outs. It’s absolutely fair to say Koufax himself took care of one more out than his fielders did. It’s absolutely fair to say that Koufax did more to win the game than the rest of the team did.

A year before Koufax’s jewel, Hall of Famer Jim Bunning pitched the National League’s first perfect game of the World Series era. (1903-present.) Bunning struck ten batters out. The remaining seventeen outs came by way of eleven fly outs and nine ground outs. Bunning needed more help than Koufax needed to consummate the game. So did a lot of other perfect game pitchers.

There are 21 perfect games in the World Series era, including one that was pitched in a World Series. Nineteen have available game logs, beginning with Charlie Robertson’s perfecto of 30 April 1922. We’ll see their strikeouts, ground outs, and fly outs. I’ll assign each pitcher a win factor (WF) based on his strikeouts (which he got by himself) divided by the sum of ground and fly outs (for which he needed more than a little help from his friends). I’m also including their fielding-independent pitching rates for those seasons.

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP (Yr.)
Charlie Robertson (1922) 2-0 6 7 14 .286 3.85
Don Larsen (1956)* 2-0 7 6 14 .350 4.27
Jim Bunning (1964) 6-0 10 6 11 .588 2.75
Sandy Koufax (1965) 1-0 14 3 10 1.077 1.93
Catfish Hunter (1968) 4-0 11 7 9 .688 3.46
Len Barker (1981) 3-0 11 9 7 .688 2.46
Mike Witt (1984) 1-0 10 13 4 .588 3.16
Tom Browning (1988) 1-0 7 10 10 .350 4.50
Dennis Martinez (1991) 2-0 5 17 5 .227 3.17
Kenny Rogers (1994) 4-0 8 7 12 .421 4.55
David Wells (1998) 4-0 11 6 10 .688 3.80
David Cone (1999) 6-0 10 4 13 .588 4.28
Randy Johnson (2004) 2-0 13 7 7 .929 2.30
Mark Buehrle (2009) 5-0 6 11 10 .286 4.46
Dallas Braden (2010) 4-0 6 7 14 .286 3.80
Roy Halladay (2010) 1-0 11 8 8 .688 3.01
Philip Humber (2012) 4-0 9 5 13 .500 5.77
Matt Cain (2012) 10-0 14 6 7 1.077 3.40
Felix Hernandez (2012) 1-0 9 8 7 .800 2.84

Notice that only two of those perfect games have a pitcher win factor one or higher. They just so happen to be tied for the most strikeouts in a perfect game while we’re at it. On the other hand, Koufax got ten outs in the air and three on the ground. Still, Koufax and Cain were equal keeping the ball in the yard for a little help from their friends.

“How about we just de-emphasise the win?” —Clayton Kershaw.

So why shouldn’t Cain be regarded as Koufax’s equal? Aside from the obvious (Koufax is a no-questions-asked peak value Hall of Famer; Cain is maybe the 282nd best starting pitcher of all time), Koufax’s game kind of proved that practise makes perfect: he’d thrown one no-hitter in each of the three previous seasons. Cain’s perfecto was the only no-hitter of his career, and he had the most runs to work with of any of these perfect game pitchers.

Koufax also had a lot less to work with. He also pitched with the anomaly of his mound opponent, Bob Hendley of the Cubs, coming thatclose to pitching a no-hitter on the backside of the game. The lone run of the game scored on a walk, a sacrifice, a steal, and a throwing error on the steal; the only hit of the game was a double after which the batter was stranded without another baserunner.

The closest to the Left Arm of God was the Big Unit: Hall of Famer Randy Johnson had only two runs to work with while striking thirteen out. Johnson and fellow Hall of Famer Roy Halladay are also the only ones of the perfecto pitchers to divide the work among their teammates evenly between the infield and the outfield.

Don Larsen’s opponent in Game Five of the 1956 World Series was Dodger nemesis-turned-teammate Sal Maglie, who’d thrown a no-hitter of his own during the regular season while helping make the final Brooklyn pennant possible. Decades later, Maglie told Peter Golenbock (for Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers), “I wish we had played in Ebbets Field the game that Larsen beat me, ’cause we hit some mighty long balls that were caught. In our ballpark, I don’t believe they would have beat me.”

Sour grapes? Among the above perfecto pitchers, Larsen tied with Charlie Robertson and Dallas Braden for the most fly outs. These are the flies from which Larsen benefited:

Duke Snider—liner to right field. (1st.)
Jackie Robinson—liner to third. (2nd.)
Sandy Amoros—pop fly around second base. (2nd.)
Carl Furillo—right field. (3rd.)
Sal Maglie—liner to center. (3rd.)
Jackie Robinson—deep right field. (5th.)
Gil Hodges—deep left center field. (5th.)
Carl Furillo—pop fly around second base. (6th.)
Roy Campanella—short center field. (6th.)
Pee Wee Reese—deep left center field. (7th.)
Duke Snider—fly to left field. (7th.)
Gil Hodges—liner to third. (8th.)
Sandy Amoros—deep left center field. (8th.)
Carl Furillo—right field. (9th.)

Maglie was probably right about Hodges in the fifth, Reese in the seventh, and Amoros in the eighth. Balls hit in Yankee Stadium’s impossible deep left center field just might have meant extra-base hits or home runs in Ebbets Field’s shorter dimensions. Robinson’s fifth-inning fly might have hit Ebbets Field’s higher, beveled right field wall. Hodges, Reese, or Amoros, maybe even all three, just might have had home runs if Game Five was played in Ebbets.

Dodger Stadium in 1965 was no hitter’s paradise, either, but Koufax surrendered only one deep fly out—Byron Browne’s high liner toward the back of right center field in the top of the second—that might have been extra bases or a possible home run if the game was played in Wrigley Field.

So what’s the point of all that? Maybe the point is that, even if you pitch a perfect game, you didn’t win it all by your lonesome unless you struck out every one of the 27 men you faced to get there without your catcher having to hold onto a foul tip or throw the batter out at first after bobbling or losing the ball on strike three.

Among the perfecto pitchers, Koufax and Cain got the closest. But if you also measure by each perfecto pitcher’s FIP in the season he turned his trick, Koufax was the most likely to pitch a perfect game the year he did it among any of the nineteen listed who did it—and Philip Humber was the least likely to do it.

(If only we had the game log for Cy Young’s 1904 perfecto! Pitching in the dead ball era, when pitchers were still encouraged to let the batters make contact as best they could, Young’s 1.83 FIP made him look like a candidate to pitch a perfect game, but with a 4.7 K/9 ratio you’d also think he needed a lot more help from his friends than Koufax [10.2 K/9 ration in 1965] did to nail one.)

The five pitchers who struck 20 or more batters out in a single nine-inning game did more to win those games than even the perfecto pitchers did.

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
Roger Clemens (1986) 3-1 20 3 4 2.86 2.81
Roger Clemens (1996) 4-0 20 8 4 1.67 3.43
Kerry Wood (1998) 2-0 20 5 3 2.50 3.16
Randy Johnson (2001) 4-3 20 3 6 2.22 2.13
Max Scherzer (2016) 3-2 20 3 10 1.54 3.24

Five starters in major league history struck out 20 in a nine-inning game and only two of them (Clemens, Wood) threw shutouts. Wood usually gets the big enough edge because a) he had half the runs to work with that Clemens had; and, b) only three balls hit off him traveled skyward. But Clemens needed one fewer out overall. That’s while pondering that, based on FIP, Johnson may have been the most likely of the quartet to punch out twenty in a nine-inning game.

If by now you’re beginning to think that maybe pitching wins aren’t everything for a pitcher, perhaps you’d like to have a look at a game illustrating that maybe pitching losses aren’t exactly everything for a pitcher, either:

Pitcher Score K GB FB WF FIP
The Hardest-Luck Loser? 1-0 8 14 16 .267 3.40

That was Harvey Haddix’s thirteen-inning heartbreaker in 1959. When he pitched twelve “perfect” innings only to have it broken up in the thirteenth for the loss. (The game is said to have inspired Lew Burdette—the Braves pitcher who went the distance to get credit for the win—when he talked contract before the following season: That guy pitched the greatest game of all time and he still couldn’t beat me—so I must be the greatest pitcher who ever lived. The prankish Burdette got his laugh . . . and his raise, so the story goes.)

There’s no question Haddix worked his tail off to get the game as far as he got it, but a combine of thirty ground and fly outs means he got a lot of help from his friends. Pitchers always do, when all is said and done.

The only friends from whom Haddix got no help were in the Pirates lineup, unable to push runs across the plate despite twelve hits including first and third in the top of the ninth. (They went 0-for-2 with men in scoring position and hit into three double plays while they were at it, too.)

Back to Jacob deGrom. We’ll have a look at his work during his two Cy Young Award seasons, the ones the OFC still believes shouldn’t have gotten him the awards because he didn’t “win” enough. Using the same win factor formula as I used to review the perfecto pitchers, this is the towering Met in 2018-2019:

Pitcher K GB FB WF FIP
Jacob deGrom (2018-2019) 524 360 331 .758 2.33

DeGrom’s win factor shows he pitched more than well enough to earn more “wins” than he actually earned over those two years and to avoid more “losses” than he was charged with in the same period. But enough of the OFC will insist deGrom’s 22 “wins” in 2018-19 mean he wasn’t even a winner, never mind Cy Young Award worthy.

There’s an active three-time Cy Young Award winner who could have been charged with heresy by the OFC for a remark he made during an interview with MLB Network at the 2012 All-Star Game. He actually said, more or less, that pitching “wins” aren’t everything.

Well, he was asked if the pitching win ought to be sent the way of the 78 rpm record. (Well, not quite in those words.) According to Ahead of the Curve author Brian Kenny, one of the three interviewers, this pitcher “said he thought there were many more important categories and thought the W-L was frequently misleading. [Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac] groaned, lamenting a missed opportunity to crush me.”

I seized on it, asking, “Can we then count on you for the Kill the Win program?” [This pitcher] answered diplomatically, “How about we just de-emphasise the win?”

I’ll take it, Clayton.

That’s Clayton as in Kershaw, he with a pair of 21-game “winning” seasons and the lifetime 175-76 “won-lost” record. The pitcher who nailed back-to-back Cy Young Awards with a 1.91 FIP, a 1.96 ERA, and a mere 16 “wins” in the second of the two seasons. (The first: 21 “wins.”) The fellow who struck out 530 batters over those two seasons, against 418 ground outs and 235 fly outs—for an .812 win factor.

When a man winning back-to-back Cy Young Awards with a win factor higher than those seasons’ “winning percentage” talks, it might be wise to listen.

If it’s any comfort to either himself in the Elysian Fields, or to the OFC any old place you choose to place them, Harvey Haddix’s 1959 FIP says he was more likely to pitch and consummate a perfect game than eight pitchers who actually did pitch and consummate them. Including the million-to-one shot who did it in a World Series.