The “W” Stands for “(in) What Universe Does That Kind of Performance Merit a Win?”


One consequence of the Met bullpen’s blowup Sunday afternoon in Miami was the matter of determining the winning pitcher. Since the Marlins won on a walk-off in the bottom of the 9th, the shiny W went to the last man on the mound for the home team, in this case so-called closer Heath Bell. The winning line on the day: 2 runs on 2 hits and 2 walks in 1 inning. Bell’s season ERA ballooned (not like it wasn’t high enough already) to a coronary-inducing 10.03. Gee-whiz, that just screams “quality pitching,” doesn’t it? But it doesn’t matter how he did, because he was the man on the mound when the winning team took the lead for good.

Today’s result reminds me of another similar outing last August against Milwaukee: after exacting revenge against Francisco Rodriguez, who spotted his former team 3 runs in the 8th inning, the New York bullpen collapsed and let the Brewers steal an 11-9 heartbreaker. The worst part of that outing? K-Rod “earned” the W because he was the man on the mound when the winning team took the lead for good.

It’s not just in Mets losses that this oddity makes its occurrences in: take the beyond-wild finish against the Giants three weeks ago. Mike Pelfrey was in line for what would’ve been his first (and only, *sigh*) W of 2012. One Frank-Frank implosion, a misplayed popup, and a few San Fran fielding gifts later, the Mets were victors like they were supposed to be. But it wasn’t Big Pelf who got the privilege of seeing the W next to his name in the box score. It was Jon Rauch who received the dubious honor after getting the final out of the 9th inning twice because he was the man on the mound when the winning team took the lead for good.

It was more sensible in a long-gone era of baseball to assign wins to the pitcher who saw his team take the lead on his watch: starters were expected to pitch the entire game and those who couldn’t didn’t deserve the decoration of a W. But in this era, no one expects pitchers to toss complete games; “throwback” Roy Halladay has led his league in CGs 6 of the last 7 years, and even then he’s only gone the distance around of the quarter of times he’s started. Halladay collected 121 wins in that span, but imagine how many more he would’ve gotten if not for ineffective relievers who leeched the W off of him.

Official Rule 10.17 of Major League Baseball designates different scenarios in which the official scorer can assign Ws outside the normal guidelines. Within the subsets of 10.17 is a provision which states:

"(c) The official scorer shall not credit as the winning pitcher a relief pitcher who is ineffective in a brief appearance, when at least one succeeding relief pitcher pitches effectively in helping his team maintain its lead. In such a case, the official scorer shall credit as the winning pitcher the succeeding relief pitcher who was most effective, in the judgment of the official scorer."

“Ineffective” is very strictly defined: “less than one inning and…2 or more earned runs allowed.” Clearly, this consideration should be expanded, ideally to the point where a pitcher does not get rewarded for a blown save or putting his team in position to lose, only to be bailed out by his offense in the next inning. This would eliminate the absurdity of Heath Bell’s W today and K-Rod’s last August.

The most recognizable provision within 10.17 is the rule which states the official scorer may assign the W to the “most effective reliever” in the event the starting pitcher lasts less than 5 innings (still a useful benchmark today). This provision should be expanded to work the other way: if a pitcher has done enough to give his team a win in typical circumstances (think Quality Start), he should be able to earn the W in the event his team wins but a relief pitcher has blown his lead in the later innings. In this scenario, Mike Pelfrey would’ve been rightfully recognized as the winning pitcher three weeks ago against San Fran.

In the last decade, baseball has gone through a numbers revolution, with new statistics appearing it seems like every day, changing the way players are considered effective. And yet the old-fashioned W-for-win is still something starting pitchers most strive for and too often lose to relief pitchers who back into the distinction. With all this time for coming up with new stats, you would think Major League Baseball could schedule in a few minutes to fit this old workhorse with a new set of horseshoes.

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