It occurs to me that I haven’t really been chapped by a manager decision in quite a while (Mike Quade used to do it to me regularly), but I was pretty aggravated last night. With one out in the bottom of the 8th, Jeff Samardzija came to the plate to hit in a 1-1 game. He was pitching a fantastic game, had the only Cubs hit of the night to that point, and is the staff ace. I can understand wanting to send him out there for another inning. I didn’t agree with the decision, given that Samardzija was already well over 100 pitches, and you really need a strong batter in that situation. Still, I accepted it.
But then, in the 9th inning, Samardzija was allowed to throw another 20ish pitches, pushing his total to 126, and was not pulled even after walking two batters with relievers warm and ready (thankfully, a well-timed double-play ball saved us from a potentially even more uncomfortable conversation).
I am sure Samardzija would have been angry to have been pulled (for his part, he isn’t worried about pitch counts), and I know his stuff still looked good. But there’s an obligation to protect the players from themselves at times, and, knowing what we know about pitcher arm injuries, it almost always a terrible idea to allow a pitcher in that situation to throw more than 115 pitches, let alone 126.
Why was Samardzija left in so long?
He was performing well, and he gave the Cubs a good chance to go into the bottom of the 9th with the game still tied, so there’s your primary reason. But what else did manager Rick Renteria offer after the game?
As he told the media – several times – when they asked the obvious question, “We wanted that game for him.” The implication was pretty clearly that Renteria wanted to see Samardzija finally get his first “win” of the year.
126 pitches for a shot at a “win.”
When will the pitcher W/L stat’s reign of terror come to an end? It’s already been dumbing down baseball discourse for far longer than it ever should have, and now it’s threatening bodily injury to the Cubs’ best pitcher?
I am, of course, being a little tongue-in-cheek here, and I’m not going to overdramatize a single outing (even though there is credible research that indicates allowing a pitcher to go over 120 pitches in a single start – even once – can be one of the best predictors of future arm injuries). Pitchers come in different shapes, sizes, and abilities, and Samardzija does seem like the kind of guy who could handle elevated pitch counts a little more regularly than other guys.
The point here is simply that, if you’re going to allow Samardzija to throw too many pitches, at least allow him to throw too many pitches for better reasons than to get him a mark on the back of his baseball card – a mark that tells us nothing about how well he pitched. The proof? Samardzija has pitched as well as any pitcher in baseball this year, and he still doesn’t have one of those wins. By pitcher W/L record, Samardzija is tied at the bottom as the worst pitcher in baseball.
Your instinctual reaction to that fact shouldn’t be, “Man, he’s been unlucky,” or, “Man, he deserves a win!” – your reaction should be: “Holy crap, what kind of POS stat would suggest that Samardzija is tied for being the worst pitcher in baseball so far this year? That must not be a very good stat.”
Consider this: if Welington Castillo singles in the 9th inning last night, Samardzija gets a “W.” That was after he’d left the game. Nothing he did could change at that point. This all-important W/L stat was riding entirely on things outside of Samardzija’s control. Castillo didn’t get a hit. Samardzija didn’t get a win.
Is his start suddenly different? After he’d already left the damn game?
In every argument since ever about the pitcher W/L stat, there are pretty much only two defenses to its continued use, and both are completely bogus.
(1) “Wins and losses are the most important thing in baseball, so how could it not be an important stat?” Yes, team wins and losses are the most important stat of all. Unfortunately, they are completely different from the pitcher W/L stat, which is as artificial as any other stat about an individual player. Except that this stat doesn’t actually tell us how well the player performed – a guy can throw 9 innings, give up no earned runs and no hits and strike out 20 and still get a “L”. A guy can throw 5.0 innings and give up 40 earned runs and still get a “W.” How quickly would you defenders of W/L jump all over a sabermetric stat if it was that crappy at evaluating player performance? You rail on WAR because it’s inaccessible and opaque, and yet you defend a stat that is on its face and by definition a misleading descriptor of a pitcher’s ability?
(2) “Yeah, it’s not great, but it’s a good short-hand for how well a guy has pitched in his starts.” First of all, no it’s not. Second of all, if that’s all you’re looking for, there are way better stats out there – Quality Starts, for example.
The pitcher W/L stat is a terrible stat, made only more terrible by how pervasive its “importance” is in our current baseball culture.
Stop it. Stop caring about that stat, and start caring about stats that matter. You know, stats that tell you what your eyes have told you all season long: that Jeff Samardzija is pitching like a beast, and no bogus stat is going to change that fact. He doesn’t need to get a “win” to justify his awesomeness this year.