On Pitching Wins, ERA and WHIP

I don’t think pitching wins should count for anything. I’ve expressed my feelings toward this counting statistic before, but maybe I haven’t gone over exactly why I believe it to be useless.

I think most people are already accepting of the fact that a win and loss record for relievers is meaningless because, as we saw last night in the Blue Jays and Athletics extra inning game, a pitcher like Jason Frasor can supply the worst pitching of a string of relievers and still collect the victory, based solely on what the offense does the next inning. So, let’s focus on wins and losses for starting pitching.

In order to win a baseball game, you need to score more runs than your opponents. This means that the responsibility for any game is broken up between offense and defense. That’s why there are two halves of each inning. Already, we’ve got 50% of the entire game for which a pitcher, at least in the American League, plays absolutely no role in, and in the National League, he normally holds the least amount of responsibility in the entire lineup.

From there we look at defense, where the pitcher does play a role, but even within that 50% of responsibility, the fielders behind him play a role too. How much of one has been estimated before, but I can’t say that I completely understand how those estimates work. However, I would say that fielding plays a significant role in defense, especially considering that modern baseball analysis has come to understand that, for the most part, pitchers don’t control where hits end up going.

And then even from the leftovers of that, once a starting pitcher exits the game, he has to trust in the bullpen to maintain his win. It’s something that he has absolutely no control over whatsoever.

So, how do we judge a pitcher’s worth? For years, we’ve looked at earned run average (which is simply earned runs multiplied by nine and then divided by innings pitched) and walks and hits per innings pitched (which is fairly self explanatory). Unfortunately, these two widely used statistics also account for things that aren’t under a pitcher’s control, like his team’s defense, the park he’s pitching in, and just dumb luck.

That’s why those interested in a clearer way of looking at just the pitcher’s performance prefer fielding independent pitching (FIP) .

Our own Drew Fairservice also tackled the usefulness of FIP and xFIP at the end of last season.

I bring this up because on yesterday’s post game radio show on the FAN 590, one of my favourite baseball guys, Mike Wilner, attempted to justify his claim that Jesse Litsch was one of the best pitchers in the American League in 2008 by suggesting:

You can’t throw away stuff like WHIP and ERA because they actually tell the story of what happened.  They don’t necessarily tell you why it happened or whether it’s likely to happen again, but they tell you what happened, and that’s significant.

To that effect, so do pitching wins. Wins and losses tell you what happened in the game in terms of how they’re attributed to starting pitchers. ERA and WHIP aren’t as limited as pitching wins, but they still give far too much weight to other factors beyond a pitcher’s control. They’re simplistic and somewhat arbitrary ways of judging a pitcher’s worth, and not a very good indicator of a pitcher being good or bad, or at least, not as good as FIP.

If Wilner suggested that Litsch allowed some of the fewest earned runs or walks and hits in the American League, then by all means, use ERA and WHIP to justify that statement. It wouldn’t mean much because it doesn’t take the differences in fielding or official scorers into account, but it wouldn’t matter all that much anyway because he didn’t say that. He said that he was one of the best.

Interestingly enough, you can make an argument that Wilner is correct in his assessment looking only at Litsch’s FIP for 2008. He ranks 21st in the American League in FIP among pitchers who threw 170 innings, but also behind teammates Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett. It can be somewhat tricky claiming that a pitcher is one of the best in the entire league when it doesn’t even seem as though he’s one of the best on his own team.

In all of the other important peripherals Litsch ranks as average or slightly above, but he certainly didn’t put up the kind of numbers that would indicate that he’s one of the best. Still, based on FIP, you could make an argument.

However, if you really want to disagree with Wilner on his point about Litsch, a better response would have been, “So what?”

You know who else was one of the best pitchers in the American League in 2008? Ervin Santana, Gil Meche, Scott Baker, Andy Sonnanstine, Nick Blackburn and Jeremy Guthrie all rank in the top 25 for FIP in 2008 among American League pitchers with 170 innings. Since then, Litsch has had both Tommy John and hip surgery, and has pitched horribly in limited action across different levels.

I just don’t understand how bringing up Litsch’s success, whether warranted or not, in 2008 means anything as to his ability to contribute to this team as the fifth starter in 2011. I suppose we’ll find out to some degree tonight when he makes his first start of the season against the Oakland A’s.

Prove me wrong, Ginger Beard Man.