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In Defense of the Win

In the summer of 1961, Vince Lombardi – the coach of the Green Bay Packers – decided to go back to basics with his squad, to start from square one and remind his team of the fundamentals of the game they played; and in what is now a famous speech, held up an oblong pigskin ball and said:

 

“Gentlemen, this is a football.”

 

This article is nearly four years in the making, stemming from a conversation my friends and I were having while gathered for dinner at my house, and as we are well aware, most great ideas come from the dinner table. Wins have been a quintessential statistic throughout almost a century and a half of baseball history, though recently, they have been much maligned from the top of the industry all the way down to your average fan; in recent years we have heard everything from “Wins are meaningless because they are easy to get,” to “you can have a lot of Wins and a bad ERA,” (the claim that inspired this piece), and “Wins tell you absolutely nothing about a player whatsoever.”
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But I don’t believe these criticisms are necessarily fair, nor do they consider the whole picture. No one should look at Wins in a vacuum, this much is obvious; but then again, no one should look at any stat in a vacuum, not in baseball anyway. There is no such thing as a singular statistic that can tell you how good a player is, not even “WAR” (for more on that abomination, click here); I know it’s fashionable to crap on Wins, but they mean something dang it! So let’s get back to basics:

 

“Gentlemen, this is a baseball.”

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The Win as a statistic goes back to the dawn of the game, and like any other statistic should not be viewed in isolation as it is part of the grand tapestry of player evaluation; you look to Wins in conjunction with ERA, WHIP, Innings Pitched (usually), Strikeouts, etc., to tell you just how good a pitcher is. This tapestry of statistics is why we can look at the performances of pitchers such as Felix Hernandez and Jacob deGrom and not discount their talent or contributions to their teams just because their Win totals are lacking.

To win the game is – or at least should be – the goal of every starting pitcher; it is your duty to pitch as long as possible and hold the opposing team to fewer runs scored than your offense can provide for you. Should you pitch at least half a game, exit with the lead, and have your bullpen protect said lead, you earn the Win. Even as pitching philosophy has changed in the modern era, the truth of baseball’s early understanding still rings true in the DNA of the game, which is why we are now impressed when a pitcher goes deep into a start or completes a game; because we know intrinsically that those performances are how the game is supposed to be, no matter how we try to suppress that truth, or lie to ourselves that Wins are not important, we know deep down that they are.

 

Wins don’t mean everything, but they do mean something.

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That’s why 300 Wins are so important; if Wins are so easy to get, then why is it so hard to collect 300 of them? One only has to get 15 per year for twenty years, and when you consider you can make up for a couple of years of less than fifteen Wins by having a couple of years with a greater amount, it should all even out, right? Given that the average Hall of Fame career is roughly 18 years, it seems quite doable for the greatest pitchers of all time, and yet, it’s not.

“But people don’t pitch as often as they did in the days of Cy Young,” the objectors argue; okay, but 300 Wins were rare even back then, in fact, there have only been 24 men to reach that milestone in the entire history of the game! It’s not like everyone was doing it, or even coming necessarily close, be it in the days of the rubber arm or the rest of the sport’s 149 years of play.

“Okay,” they say, “But you can win a lot of games while also having a bad ERA!” This is true, but not as true as one might think, for while it does happen, it doesn’t happen often. I went back and painstakingly looked at every single season in baseball history, from 1876 (excluding the controversial National Association as a Major League) to 2023, and decided to see how possible it was and how often it occurred that someone would win “a lot of games” while having a “bad ERA.” I decided to set the parameters for “a lot of Wins” at 18, because traditionally that is a number that catches one’s eye more than 15-17, and for “bad ERA” I chose 4.00 or higher, given that if a pitcher is allowing four runs per start or per nine, most would look at them as not being very good.
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Is there a material difference between a pitcher with an ERA in the 3.90s and an ERA of 4.00 plus? Probably not, but you have to draw the line somewhere, and it seemed to me to be a fair distinction. So, are the critic’s claims accurate? Spoiler alert, not really; to win a lot of games with a bad ERA is rare, rarely repeated, and those who repeat it aren’t usually around for a terribly long time. So how do the numbers play out?

There have been, thus far, a total of 1879 occurrences of a pitcher recording at least eighteen Wins or more in a season, and of this 1879, only 115 times has a 4.00+ ERA accompanied their high Win total; this means that the percentage of high Win/high ERA seasons equals out to a paltry 6.12% and an average of about 8.2 per decade. In the modern era (1970-2023), the amount of repeat offenders reaches a grand total of…three; not exactly that common or easy to do, is it? So, respectfully, this objection has been weighed, measured, and found severely wanting.

Going back to the 300-Win club, there’s a reason why none of the members have a bad career ERA, with the highest being 3.54, a mark shared by both Tom Glavine & Early Wynn; and it’s because it truly is not that easy to have a high combination of the two, especially if one wants to sustain a long or Hall of Fame career.
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But there is another important reason not to eschew the Win, and it’s a similar argument as to why we shouldn’t adopt WAR as a “be all end all” statistic; because when we go so far as to render a fundamental statistic meaningless, we never stop there, and the unintended (?) consequence is that we inevitably start doing so to other vital stats.

I am old enough to remember people arguing that Wins don’t mean anything because King Felix and Jacob deGrom both had incredibly low Win totals, but stellar ERAs; “look at their amazing ERAs,” they’d say, “The fact that they are limiting runs so well and being unlucky enough not to win the game because of bad offenses who do not score for them shows that Wins are meaningless.” Yet now we have people like YouTuber GiraffeNeckMarc (for example), opining in his latest video on ESPN’s top 100 players, that, “the more I think about it…ERA is a stupid stat.”

Seriously? It’s a stupid stat? The statistic that calculates exactly what you want it to – how many runs on average does a pitcher give up per nine innings – is all of a sudden, stupid? And don’t even get me started on that guy on X who claimed ERA is stupid because Jack Leiter gave up a bases-clearing triple when his Centerfielder took a bad route! It’s as if people don’t understand that a person’s ERA after one start is not the same as a season-long ERA, where for as many bad routes as one might take that cost runs, there will also be many a play that saves runs where they should have been scored.

 

“They came for the Wins, and I said nothing, because I was not a winner.”

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If you think this is just a one-off occurrence, keep in mind that MLB Network and the baseball intelligentsia are always all too eager to dispense with traditional baseball wisdom as being old and archaic, in order to seek the new hotness of statistical “knowledge.” Even if Marc’s opinion on ERA doesn’t take off, the same process will try to eliminate another traditional stat. The problem with this is that not only does it take away valuable tools that are still more than capable of helping us judge how good a player is, but it then also calls into question everything we’ve ever known about who was good and who was not. It destroys the foundations of Baseball when it doesn’t have to; it suppresses the truth in unrighteousness and trades the truth for a lie.

If ERA means nothing, then you should be able to find me the great pitcher with a bad-to-terrible ERA for his career, and the bad pitcher with a good-to-great ERA for his (in a large enough sample size); guess what, you’re not going to find it. ERA is a sign of just how good you are because, to tie this back to Wins, while it is possible to have a lot of Wins and a bad ERA in a season, it is incredibly rare to do so and even rarer to repeat it. Simply put, when you look at the whole of baseball history, you will not find people with a large amount of Wins in their career, who also have a bad career ERA, it just doesn’t happen!
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There’s absolutely a positive correlation between being a good pitcher, having a lot of Wins, and a good ERA; at least two of those three things will always overlap, and usually all three do. When the highest ERA you have for a 300-game Winner is 3.54, that should tell you how important both ERA and Wins are; and when the average ERA for the same is 2.93, this further proves the point. But it goes beyond the 300-Win club, as the same result will be found when you examine Hall of Fame pitchers.

For out of the minuscule 87 pitchers who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, their highest ERA is 3.90 (with 13 clocking in above 3.50), but their average ERA is a solid 3.01; and while the highest Hall of Fame Wins total is Cy Young’s 511, the average amount of Wins for a Hall of Fame pitcher is 237, which goes to show both that a high amount of Wins is pretty common amongst the best pitchers of all time, but also, there is largely a hard cap on how many even the best of the best can obtain. It is simply not as easy as most people believe.

You cannot tell me that Wins mean nothing in light of all these stats, especially those that involve the greatest of all time, you just can’t.

One final note; as mentioned previously there are players with a high Win total and a stellar ERA, and there are players who suffered such poor offensive production behind them that their ERA and Wins were both incredibly low, but I want to bridge the gap by talking about the singular most impressive arm in all of baseball history, Nolan Ryan. “The Ryan Express,” a Hall of Famer in his own right, is almost the perfect amalgamation of everything we’ve talked about today; he has a high amount of Wins (324), a large number of losses (292), and a very good career ERA of 3.19. What’s even more amazing is that he is a man who never once had a high amount of Wins in the same year he had a bad ERA, in fact, most of his seasons where he had high-loss numbers were also accompanied by good-to-decent ERAs.
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Why do I bring this up? Because despite his being one of the Top 24 Win-leaders of all time (as well as one of the top 3 loss-leaders), Ryan also had 198 career-quality starts in which he did not receive the Win; and in these 198 starts, his record is an astounding 0-107, with an ERA of 2.27. So, removing the 91 no-decisions, we see that should he have won all those games in which he pitched well enough to win but lost due to the failure of his offense, Nolan Ryan, a relatively modern-era pitcher, would go from number 14 all-time to number 2 on the all-time Wins list with an astounding 431; and if he were to win only half that number, he’d still jump from number 14 to number 3 with 377 (377.5, really, but there is no such thing as a half win).

I believe Nolan Ryan is in and of himself proof that the Win means something, even something important, but thankfully, the argument does not solely rely on him; and I hope that after this exploration into the Win, as well as the countering of some of the most prevalent arguments, you now have a much greater appreciation and understanding of both the Win and its importance to this game that we love.

Aaron is a Writer and communicator who has notably served on the communications team of the Westchester County Executive. Nicknamed "Mr. Baseball" in his youth, Aaron is a lifelong Yankee fan, Tino Martinez and Aaron Judge enthusiast, and a fierce defender of Craig Biggio's Hall of Fame worthiness. When he is not writing, or doing baseball related activities, Aaron is an avid foodie and culinarian. His non-baseball writing can be found at the Realety Check substack.

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