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May 23, 2013

Baseball Therapy

Are Starters Motivated by Wins?

by Russell A. Carleton


On Monday’s edition of MLB Now, anchor Brian Kenny once again made the case against using wins as a measure of pitcher quality. Citing recent games such as Matt Harvey’s brilliant nine-inning, one-hit no-decision, he argued that the win is an overrated statistic that doesn’t do a good job of describing the pitcher’s performance. After Kenny’s presentation, former pitcher Al Leiter came out to give a rebuttal. Leiter had an interesting take on the issue. He said that Kenny wasn’t respecting the human element of the game, and he suggested that the win statistic might actually make starters perform a little better in some key situations.

Leiter cited the memory of a time when he was pitching and the game was tied. With two outs and his pitch count north of 95, he knew that he wouldn’t be out for the next inning, but that if he could retire the next hitter, he could get the game to his team’s offense in the next half-inning. If they scored, he would pick up the win. Leiter recalled one time that Bobby Valentine came out to the mound to check on him in such a situation and asked whether Leiter had “one more” in him. Leiter said yes, and the possibility of getting a W next to his name was what drove him.

Leiter never directly addressed the main question of whether wins are a silly statistic, but he brings up a very good point about whether the existence of the stat has some very real behavioral effects. Certainly, pitchers would love to get a win in general (and in that situation), and they may feel more motivated as a result, but does their performance actually get better in these situations because of the tantalizing lure of a possible win?

Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
I isolated all situations from 1993-2012 in which the starter was still on the mound, it was the fifth inning or later (even if the pitcher finishes the fourth on a high note, he doesn’t get the win), the game was tied, and his pitch count was over 95. We will call these situations “Leiter situations.”

Using the logged odds ratio method of controlling for pitcher/batter quality, I controlled for the likelihood of seven events (strikeout, walk, HBP, single, double or triple, home run, or out on a ball in play). Because we’re also specifically dealing with pitch counts here, I entered pitch count prior to the at-bat as a control. I also controlled for whether the pitcher had a handedness advantage over the batter. Also, I restricted the sample to plate appearances in which a batter who had logged 250 PA in that season faced a pitcher with 250 batters faced.

I ran a series of logistic regressions to check whether the “Leiter” variable had any predictive power beyond the control variables. So, below when I talk about differences in performance, I’m talking about differences from what we might expect given that we know how good the pitcher and batter are, and the fatigue level of the pitcher. Does our starter gain (or lose) anything extra that makes us believe that he is more (or less) than we would expect of a tired pitcher nearing the end of his outing?

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Related Content:  Al Leiter,  Wins,  Brian Kenny,  Pitcher Wins

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Premium Article In A Pickle: Walk Don'... (05/23)
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