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June 9, 2003

Prospectus Today

Numbers

by Joe Sheehan

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On Saturday, Roger Clemens missed again in his third try for career win No. 300. Clemens pitched well for 6 2/3 innings, but was forced out of the game by an upper respiratory infection having thrown just 84 pitches. In his wake, Juan Acevedo surrendered a monster three-run home run to Eric Karros--not easy for a right-handed pitcher--that was the crushing blow in a 5-2 loss.

Clemens, of course, is going to get No. 300. He's still a very good pitcher, and there's no reason to expect that this will turn into a chase like Early Wynn's. Wynn notched career win No. 297 in July of 1962, then had just two wins in his final 11 starts that season. He returned in 1963 to win No. 300--and only No. 300, in 20 appearances--before hanging them up for good.

The interesting thing about this mini-chase is that by struggling to reach his landmark number, Clemens is illustrating the problem with pitcher wins as a performance metric:

  • In his first try for No. 300, on May 26 against the Red Sox, Clemens had awful command and pitched terribly through five innings, allowing five runs and throwing more than 100 pitches. In an effort to give his offense one more chance to bail out Clemens, Joe Torre allowed him to start the sixth inning, but three two-out singles forced Clemens out, and he would take the loss in an 8-4 game. Torre stretched out Clemens on a day when he was laboring in an effort to garner him a W, a bad idea you'll see managers execute on occasion.

    Moreover, had the plan succeeded and the Yankees come back to score in the bottom of the sixth, taking the lead and subsequently holding on, the win would have been less about Clemens' performance--five runs allowed in six innings--and more about the work of his teammates at the plate. The vagaries of run support are the single biggest reason why the W statistic is a poor tool for evaluating the work of pitchers.

  • Six days later, in Detroit, Clemens was staked to a 7-1 lead by the Yankee offense. In the fifth, though, Clemens allowed five runs, in large part due to a defense that let him down by not only making errors, but by showing poor range on balls that might have been turned into outs by better defenders.

    A pitcher is ostensibly responsible for walks, strikeouts and home runs. When a ball is put in play off of him, he becomes reliant on the defense behind him to make plays. When they don't--and the Yankees have a defense that for the most part doesn't--runs score that, while charged to the pitcher, are mostly outside of his control.

    Clemens left the Tiger game after six innings with an 8-6 lead, but the Yankee bullpen coughed up that edge in the seventh. While the Bombers would go on to win the game 10-9 in 17 innings, the W would go to David Wells, not Clemens. A starting pitcher has no control over the work of his relievers, but that work can be the difference in three or four wins a year. Cy Young Awards and eight-figure contracts can hang on whether a pitcher gets good bullpen support or bad over the course of a season.

  • Two days ago, as mentioned, Clemens pitched very well. Unlike in his previous two starts, however, the Yankees scored just one run while he was in the game. Forced to leave early, he was again victimized by the bullpen, and ended up stuck with an L in a game he might well have won had the Yankees put even a few runs on the board. In this case, both the lineup and the bullpen--as well as his upper respiratory system--let Clemens down.

Clemens and the Yankees are unwittingly providing a clinic in why we shouldn't get excited about a pitcher's wins and losses, and why we certainly shouldn't evaluate a pitcher on just those numbers. They're influenced by the defense, the bats and the bullpen. In the short term, those things can go for or against just about anyone. In the long term the pitchers, like Clemens, who do the best job of controlling the things they can--strikeouts, walks and homers--are the ones who have the best careers.

That said, let's not minimize what Clemens is about to do. In our society, we use a base-10 counting system, and we attach significance to numbers that end in multiple zeroes. While wins are a flawed metric, and No. 300 isn't that much more meaningful that No. 299 or less so than No. 301, the standard of 300 wins is one reached by a very special few in the game's long history. Clemens is getting there in a time when starting pitchers get fewer opportunities for Ws than in any previous era, a testament to both his ability and his longevity.

It's not dissonant to both dismiss wins as a performance metric and to respect what Clemens is about to acheive. If anything, his bumpy road to the round number has provided a pretty good example of why.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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