Baseball

Burgers Sold and Pitcher Wins

When I was a kid, the McDonald’s not too far from our home used to have a sign that would brag about how many burgers the chain had sold. I’m probably remembering wrong, but I recall the first number being something like 20 million burgers sold. It was probably more than that, but that’s what I remember.* And the number would change. A month later it would be 30 million sold, then 50 million sold, then 100 million sold, then 500 million sold and so on.

*I also remember when the first number in the price of the car on “The Price Is Right” was a 3. Maybe a 2. And it was just four digits. I’m old.

I remember that Joan Rivers, back when she made a living out of making Elizabeth Taylor fat jokes, used to do one about how Taylor would go into a McDonald’s and they would have to change the number out front.

Eventually, McDonalds gave up on the counting and the signs simply read “Billions and billions of burgers sold.”

I guess the point is this: I used to LOVE that McDonald’s sign. I used to look for it every single time we went to McDonalds. I would keep a running total in my head. How many burgers sold were on the sign last month? How many burgers sold on the sign now? How many burgers did they sell in the month? Surely, I knew the numbers meant next-to-nothing.The number of burgers McDonald’s sold had no effect on my life whatsoever, and the numbers on the billboards were certainly wrong and, more than wrong, not intended to be taken seriously. It was all a marketing scheme.

But I DID care. And, I suppose, based on how long McDonald’s ran the campaign, other people must have cared too.

This brings me to the pitchers’ win. There are probably not many people in America who have railed against the pitchers’ win more than I have over the last few years. It’s a ridiculous statistic. It’s utterly illogical. As I’ve written before, if the pitchers’ win had never been invented and you suggested this goofy statistic -- OK, you have to pitch at least five innings, unless you’re a relief pitcher, in which case you don’t have to pitch five innings, you can actually pitch 1/3 of an inning, depending on the circumstances, and the team has to be ahead after you come out of the game, except in certain weird times when the game can be tied, and the team must never lose the lead while you’re out of the game -- people would scream at you to put on your Star Wars pajamas and go back to your mother’s basement and leave the baseball thinking to the people who have played the game or watched it for many years.

So, yeah, the win is kind of dumb and often misleading and probably the worst of the most obvious pitching statistics to determine a pitcher’s value. Here are five fairly well known pitching statistics. Which group of pitchers would you want?

Tops in wins

-- Max Scherzer, 19

-- Francisco Liriano, 15

-- Jordan Zimemermann, 15

-- Matt Moore, 15

-- Chris Tillman, 15

-- Adam Wainwright, 15

-- Jorge De La Rosa, 15

Tops in ERA

-- Clayton Kershaw

-- Matt Harvey

-- Jose Fernandez

-- Anibal Sanchez

-- Yu Darvish

Tops in strikeouts

-- Yu Darvish

-- Matt Scherzer

-- Clayton Kershaw

-- Felix HFernandez

-- Chris Sale

Fewest HR allowed

-- Matt Harvey

-- Clayton Kershaw

-- Jhoulys Chacin

-- Anibal Sanchez

-- A.J. Burnett

WHIP

-- Clayton Kershaw

-- Matt Harvey

-- Max Scherzer

-- Jose Fernandez

-- Hisashi Iwakuma

OK, what’s the best group? I used Baseball Reference WAR to measure so you can take from that what you will. Because there are so many pitchers tied at 15 wins, I took Scherzer (6.0 WAR) and four pitchers with the BEST WAR to give wins as much of an advantage as I could. Those four pitchers, in case you were wondering were Adam Wainwright (4.8), Jorge De La Rosa (4.2), Francisco Liriano (3.5) and Chris Tillman (3.4)

That gave the pitchers with the most win a combined 21.9 WAR. Not bad at all.

But the Fewest Home Runs Allowed group had a combined 24.9 WAR. And home runs allowed, let’s face it, is a pretty limited category.

The best ERA pitchers had a combined 28.7 WAR.

The strikeout leaders had a combined 29.0 WAR.

And the WHIP leaders also had a combined 29.0 WAR.

It’s not close. Wins do not do a very good job reflecting the qualify of a pitcher. As Bill James has said, wins are like watching the first 20 minutes of a movie and deciding if the movie is good or not. You may be right much of the time, but it’s no way to do movie reviews.

OK, but all that has been said in different ways a million times. The win has been back in the Internet spotlight lately mainly because my friend Brian Kenny has been leading a ferocious attack on it (Kill the win!) and some people have been fighting back and some people have been saying that this is just beating a horse that died five years ago and so on and so forth.

But here’s the thing: I don’t want the win killed. I don’t want it to go away. And, at exactly the same time, I don’t want people to use it as a factor for their Cy Young vote, and I wouldn’t want the general manager of my favorite baseball team to even look at it, and I could go the rest of my life without hearing people knock the amazing season Clayton Kershaw is having because he doesn’t have that many wins.

But the win means something emotionally. It has what Bill James calls the power of language. Cy Young won 511 games. Denny McLain won 31 in 1968. Dwight Gooden went 24-4 in 1985 and Roger Clemens did it in 1986 and Ron Guidry went 25-3 in 1978. I know all these off the top of my head, and I’m guessing many of you do too. Rick Sutcliffe went 16-1 for the Cubs in 1984 after the Cleveland Indians traded him, and Doyle Alexander went 9-0 down the stretch for the Detroit Tigers as they won their division in 1987. I know Tom Seaver won 311 games -- I was at his 296th victory in Cleveland when he beat Jerry Reed and the Indians 8-3. I know Whitey Ford’s career record was 236-106. I know Old Hoss Radbourn won 48 and 59 games in back-to-back seasons. I know Lefty Grove won 31 in 1931.

Does any of this information MEAN anything? No. But, in the end, do any baseball numbers mean anything? Their value is to tell baseball’s story, to help us remember, to make us feel something. I grew up with the pitcher’s win, it is engrained in me, so I do feel a jolt of excitement when i see that Max Scherzer is 19-1. It’s really cool. I get the same jolt when I see someone with 150 RBIs or a .360 batting average. There’s something fun about a 19-1 season, there’s no reason to deny that joy. Does it mean he’s the best pitcher in the American League? Well, I happen to think he has been the best pitcher in the American League so far, but it’s not because of the won-loss record.

I still want to KNOW his won-loss record, though. For posterity. For history. For the kid who grew up a baseball fan.

I wonder if the young baseball fans today -- fewer and fewer, I’m told -- feel differently about the win and other old fashioned statistics like batting average and RBIs and errors and the like. They’ve been given all these advanced statistics, they’ve read Moneyball and/or seen the movie, they have been told time and again that the win doesn’t measure what so many claimed through the years it measures. I don’t know what the future holds for the win.

And the win is not a good statistic for much. But it’s a good statistic for remembering. I know Bob Welch won 27 games in 1990 and won a Cy Young that should have gone to Roger Clemens. I know LaMarr Hoyt won 24 games in 1983 and won a Cy Young that probably should have gone to Dan Quisenberry. I know my South Euclid brother Steve Stone won 25 games in 1980 and won a Cy Young that probably should have gone to Mike Norris.

The fact that I remember their exact win totals probably says something. Like the McDonald’s burgers-sold signs, the push for pitcher wins have been like a marketing campaign. But, if I’m being honest, I have to admit: It’s a catchy one.

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