Over the Labor Day weekend, aimlessly driving around my neighborhood, I happened upon a fairly massive tag sale. As much as I’d like to own a 20-year-old Nordic Track, my condo simply doesn’t have room for it. However, my bookshelf certainly does have room for the Sporting News’ “The Game for All America.” A dollar is more than a fair price to pay for the chance to scan through the pictures of double-knit powder blue uniforms, cigar chomping sports writers and all other sorts of faded 1980s baseball glory.
As an added bonus, the book was penned by MLB’s now official historian, John Thorn. Learning about pre-World War I is one of my favorite things to do, so I nearly went into diabetic coma reading about Henry Chadwick — aka the ‘Father of Baseball’ — devising basic baseball stats like batting average so the game would have a standing in America like cricket did in his native England back in the 19th century.
This reading also served a more immediate purpose — my pending interview with MLB Network’s Brian Kenny to talk about his pet Twitter project, #KillTheWin. Wins were one of the statistics devised in the time of Chadwick. Although created well over a century ago, when pitchers couldn’t throw from over their shoulder, wins and losses are still used to measure the merit of starting pitchers — especially when it comes time to picking the All-Star team or handing out the Cy Young Award.
In Kenny’s mind, this is asinine.
“The win-loss record was the earliest form of sabermetrics,” Kenny said. “It was the earliest attempt to isolate production. ‘Hey, we’re a .500 team when this guy pitching, but a great team when the big guy is pitching.’ It went from making sense — even if it wasn’t exact — but some indication how a pitcher pitched, to now where a starter is averaging barely five innings.”
Kenny’s anti-win feelings came to my attention when my friend Scott tweeted something about Kenny’s unconventional, combative thoughts on no-hitters in the wake of Homer Bailey’s no-no on July 2.
Kenny says he dipped his toes back into the Twitter waters this season and started posting “The Day in the Win,” outlining, in short, how pitchers can still pitch well and not pick up a ‘W’ next to their name in the final box score. Working at MLB Network and spending most of his free time immersed in baseball, Kenny thought this would be an illuminating way to look at a stat as the season progressed. It eventually morphed into the #KilltheWin movement, which has been debated and defended across the baseball blog-and Twitter-sphere all season.
“While I’m not a screaming mad man, what I’m seemingly railing at is the difference between perception and reality,” Kenny said.
In short — and few would argue — the win/loss stats do little to indicate how well a starting pitcher actually pitched. It’s the one commonly used individual stat that’s directly tied to team performance. On Twitter, Kenny repeatedly championed the season of Royals’ starter James Shields, whose pitched to a solid 3.03 ERA despite a 10-8 record.
Following along as the summer progressed, the litmus test for Kenny’s idea has been American League Cy Young favorite Max Scherzer. The Tigers starter ran his record to 19-1 before losing to the Red Sox Tuesday night. The loss encapsulated the #KillTheWin ethos: Scherzer allowed two runs over seven innings and was tagged for the loss despite pitching, by any measure, very well. Problem was, the Tigers scored only once in the 2-1 defeat, something Scherzer couldn’t control from the rubber. (Scherzer’s 5.79 run support average was best in baseball until the Red Sox piled up 20 runs Wednesday night to push Ryan Dempster atop the list.)
The main narrative on Scherzer’s 2013 season — be it in newspapers, websites or newscasts — hasn’t been his AL-best 0.94 WHIP (and other Cy Young-worthy merits), but rather his eye-catching win-loss record. The “20-game winner” still holds a spot in baseball’s canon.
The Scherzer debate spilled over with writers like Jon Heyman penning their support of why the win still matters, particularly in the case of Scherzer’s 2013 season. Kenny debated the issue with ESPN’s Bill Simmons in a spirited Twitter tête-à-tête last week. At one point during their back-and-forth, Simmons — a Scherzer supporter — playfully told Kenny to “Stop Sabermetric Cyberbullying.”
“Suddenly (Scherzer’s) a new-school and old-school favorite. When I see the reaction, that I hate the Tigers or that I hate Scherzer, it makes no sense. When I saw Max at All Star Game, I told him congratulations, same as if I saw Chris Tillman.”
Deadspin pointed out on Tuesday, when taking Kenny to task for his #KilltheWin crusade, how the war over the win is mostly over. Felix Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young with a 13-12 record, with BWAA voters able to look past wins and losses, digging deeper in his peripherals. Front offices, too, are dominated by analytic-based thinkers. Kenny says although younger fans, 20-somethings who are locked into Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs are wise to it, the decision-makers in the baseball industry, be it on-field managers or awards voters are still fixated on wins and losses.
“You tell me, I’m told the war is over but those in power are making decisions based on the 19th century of baseball,” he said.
Kenny, also known for his boxing expertise and love of the fight game, says he enjoys mixing it up and debating baseball. Something he threw at me in a rapid-fire series of questions: Is Cy Young 150 wins better than Greg Maddux as a pitcher? If wins don’t matter, he said, why did Curt Schilling only get 38.8 percent of the vote in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility? (Schilling’s career record is 216-146, his peripherals merit Hall consideration.)
For Kenny, the best part of the #KillTheWin movement is reading and interacting with other liked-minded baseball thinks, which he’s dubbed “the Intelligentsia.”
“I love MVP debates, Cy Young debates, Hall of Fame debates … but the people who have their reigns on the power aren’t using state-of-the-art analysis,” Kenny said. “I’m a little louder, only because I’ve been talking since late 90s and when people refuse to listen, I’ll talk a little louder. When you confer the honors, you should be using the state of the art analytics for comparative analysis. When someone is living in denial of using the best information, that’s when it gets heated. These awards are still going out on 19th century statistics. I’m sorry, why is that?
“All of this is from the 19th century, when it all made sense. It doesn’t now. Chadwick would be upset. The game changed.”
Ah history. Perhaps unlike any other sport, history matters in baseball. The numbers — even in these uncertain times after the ‘Steroid Era‘ — still matter. Minutes into our conversation Kenny effortlessly rattled off the wins totals of three immortal pitchers, Christy Mathewson (373), Walter Johnson (417) and Cy Young (511), citing his love for 19th century baseball, if not its crude statistics. For Kenny, anything prior to 1920 or the “live ball” era is almost a different game and the numbers used to measure it might not apply to what transpires on diamonds in 2013.
Still, sometimes it feels like the new-school Sabermetrics people want to blow everything up, forget about the history and rebuild from a new, analytically-based place. Perhaps there’s still a lot more lingering animosity when mainstream writers quickly dismissed the intelligent, stat-based Internet baseball writing as people “living in their mother’s basements” than we’d think. Remember the schism in the Miguel Cabrera (Triple Crown winner)/Mike Trout (Best WAR rating) MVP debate last fall?
Kenny says that’s not the goal of his anti-win crusade, that’s he’s not some sort of screaming mad man obsessed with striking the statistic from box scores.
“Most people in Sabermetrics community value baseball history more than most,” he said. “They love baseball more than anyone. It’s not a disrespect for the game. It’s a market correction. It’s happened with the industry and the young fan base. I’m taking anyone in their 20s. The missing link in between is mainstream media and the last guard of that is managers. Most managers used to be players and they’re not analysts. The managers aren’t as hip to that sort of thing. It’s not Jim Leyland’s job to be hip to that sort of thing.”
Above all, what I wanted to learn from Kenny during our chat — how can an average baseball fan look at the same more intelligently without needing to memorize complex formulas that can often be inaccessible to non-numerically inclined fans. Kenny kept it simple. For batters, keep track of on-base percentage and slugging percentage, but look at them independently rather than lumped together in OPS. For pitchers, he said it was as simple as runs compared to innings pitched.
“If all you know the on base and slugging, you’re 85 percent home,” Kenny said. “You’re getting there.”
And what of wins? Are we really only a few years away from killing off the stat entirely if Kenny and his army of Twitter acolytes have their way? Once the old guard of the Baseball Writers Association of America moves away, will the statistically, non-narrative driven writers usher in a new era in how the awards are handed out? Twenty years ago all the thinking baseball fan had to rely on was the writings of Bill James and “Total Baseball.” Nowadays, with the Internet, there’s no shorter of places for baseball fans to roll up their sleeves and dig into analytic analysis.
The more likely scenario is wins and losses will always remain a part of the box score as they always have, we as baseball fans will tend to look at them for starting pitchers the same way we do for relievers. Wins will, probably, evolve into baseball’s equivalent of the appendix.
“I say things for a bit of shock value to shake people up, but it may come to pass. The win as an accurate measure of value won’t be gone completely but it won’t be taken as seriously,” Kenny said. “Sooner or later I’ll stop railing about it. But I’ll still say, ‘why do you cite that statistic.?’ You don’t cite that statistic that doesn’t have value.”