The Weakness of Wins

Wins are a common statistics dumped on by sabermetricians.  Pitching wins, it is argued, are too dependent on things outside of a pitcher’s control for the stat to have much meaningful content.  The best recent example of this case was delivered by Joe Posnanski, covering Zack Greinke’s last 46 starts. Over that stretch, Greinke posted a 2.11 ERA, yet the Royals posted a 22-24 record. In this case, it is clear that Greinke should not be punished for the Royals’ sins. Posnanski charts each non-win in detail, and you can see a combination of factors killing Greinke. Most notably, Greinke and the Royals lost because of a combination of poor, run support, bad relief pitching, and atrocious defense. In light of this, I have always wanted to do a small exploration of Bob Gibson’s 1968 season. As is well known, Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA, completed 28 of his 35 starts, threw 13 shutouts, and finished with a 22-9 record. Given those first three stats, the W-L record seems absurd. So, how did it happen?

Here are Gibson’s 13 losses or no decisions. All of this information is taken from Retrosheet:

On 4/10, Gibson pitched 7 shutout innings and allowed 5 total baserunners (1 of whom reached on an error by Lou Brock). Unfortunately, the Cardinals did not score until the bottom of the 8th. No decision.

On 4/15, Gibson pitches poorly by his standards. He gives up 3 runs in 7 innings on 9 baserunners (one by error on Mike Shannon). The Cardinals tie up the game in the 8th, then go on to win in 10, 4-3. No decision.

On 4/20, Gibson picks up his first loss. He threw a complete game, but he gave up 5 runs, only 3 earned, on 10 hits. Unfortunately, Fergie Jenkins only gives up 1 run while throwing a complete game of his own. Loss.

After 3 straight wins, Gibson comes back with a loss on 5/12. Gibson threw 8 innings, giving up 11 hits but striking out 10 Astros. He gave up 3 runs, 2 earned (error by Dal Maxvill), but he could not overcome the complete game thrown by Larry Dierker. Loss.

On 5/17, Gibson earns the 2nd in a series of 4 consecutive losses. Gibson throws a complete game and gives up a single run in the bottom of the 10th to opposing pitcher Woodie Fryman. Sadly, Fryman threw a 10-inning shutout. Loss.

On 5/22, Gibson threw 8 innings and gave up a single run. In the 9th, reliever Joe Hoerner gave up an unearned run. Unfortunately, Don Drysdale threw a shutout, and the Dodgers won 2-0. Loss.

On 5/28, Gibson gave up 3 runs to the Giants on 4 hits and a walk in another complete game. 2 of the 4 hits were home runs, and one came after a single. Gaylord Perry only gave up a single run in his complete game, and the Giants won 3-1. Loss.

After 12 consecutive wins, Gibson went 11 innings on 8/4 and did not factor into the decision for the last time that year. He struck out 10 but gave up 12 hits and walked 3. Those turned into 5 runs, 4 earned, including a lead off home run in the top of the 9th to tie the game. After Gibson left, Hoerner gave up one run in 1.2 innings, and the Cardinals lost to the Cubs 6-5 in 13. No decision.

Now we get to the oddest loss of the lot. On 8/24, Gibson’s streak of 16 consecutive starts without a loss came to an end. The Cardinals lost to the Pirates 6-4, but Gibson threw a complete game with 15 strikeouts. Nevertheless, the Pirates scored all 6 runs in the final 3 innings, though only 3 were earned. Orlando Cepeda and Dal Maxvill committed critical errors, and Willie Stargell stuck a home run in between them. Despite his highest strikeout total of the season, Gibson took the loss. Loss.

On 9/6, in the first game of a double-header, Gibson struck out 7 over 8 innings, but he gave up 3 runs, 2 earned (another Maxvill error). The Cardinals can only put up 2 runs. Loss.

On 9/17, Gaylord Perry did it again. Gibson struck out 10, threw a complete game, and gave up a single run on a first inning home run by Ron Hunt (he would hit only one other in all of 1968). Perry struck out 9 in his shutout. Loss.

On 9/22, Gibson picked up his final loss. This time, he threw an 8 inning complete game, giving up 3 runs, 2 earned (error by Joe Hague). Don Sutton threw 8 innings and only gave up 2, leading to the Dodgers 3-2 win. Loss.

Like Greinke, Gibson ran into many of the same problems. The Cardinals did not score a lot of runs, and he was victimized by lots of unearned runs. Given the time period, the bullpen was not a real factor. With Greinke, we attribute his problems to the quality of the Royals. Of course bad teams skew pitchers’ wins. The 1968 Cardinals, though, were defending champs and went 97-65 in 1968. Even with an outstanding team, pitching wins contains too many extraneous factors to be the sole measure of pitching greatness. Though it is a stat of interest, it is by no means the best or most useful means of evaluating pitchers. Just look at Bob Gibson and Zack Greinke if you need a reminder.

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2 Comments on “The Weakness of Wins”

  1. Fortunately, I believe the era of the pitcher with the most wins getting the Cy Young award are coming to an end. Ironically, it may have been Greinke himself, who I believe only won 16 games last season yet earned the award, that has changed things. Still, if Halladay wins 23 this year for the Phils, it could be the difference in a tight Cy Young race with Lincecum, Wainwright, etc.
    Nice post, Bill

  2. sportsphd Says:

    Wins are useful as a quick and dirty measure of pitcher quality. Was Lefty Grove a great pitcher. He won 300 games, so yeah. As long as we remember how flawed it is, wins can have it’s place. If Halladay and Lincecum put up otherwise similar years, it seems fine to use wins as a tiebreaker. Outside of that, though, I’m skeptical.

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