May 23, 2013
Are Starters Motivated by Wins?
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!
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?
It’s important to find a good set of control plate appearances to use as a comparison group. So, I tried a couple of different approaches.
Leiter situations (starter, game tied, high pitch count, fifth inning or later) vs. similar situations in which the game was not tied
There was an effect of being in a Leiter situation here, only it’s not the one that Al suggests. Pitchers in a tie game were more likely to walk the batter, but less likely to give up a home run or record an out in play. The pitcher was not actually better at getting outs—he was just more careful. Seeing that it was a tied game, I can’t say I blame him, but the lure of the win did not make him more effective.
When I restricted the sample to situations when the game was close (within one run either way), but not tied, being part of a tie game continued to increase the chances of a walk, although no other outcomes were affected. Being in a tie game in your last gasp for the day doesn’t make you better. It just makes you more careful.
Leiter situations vs. similar situations when it was not the fifth inning or later
With the pressure on and no dubya on the line, do pitchers perform any differently than we would expect given everything else we know? Not really. Strikeout rates go down a bit if there’s a win on the line, but that’s about it.
Leiter situations vs. similar situations where the pitch count isn’t quite as high, so he might be able to go another inning
Is there any difference in his performance because in a Leiter situation, it will be his final chance to have an impact on the game? Nope. He’ll be better off for not having thrown as many pitches, but the fact that it’s his last chance doesn’t seem to make him better or worse.
Leiter situations vs. everything else a starter does
There were differences between Leiter situations and the rest of what a pitcher does. Strikeouts and walks went up above expectations. Singles, extra-base hits, home runs, and outs in play all went down. It’s hard to say that this is an improvement in the end, because walk rates jump about 1.6 percent, while strikeout rates go up only 0.7 percent and rates of outs in play drop by almost two percentage points. Hits do go down by just shy of two percent, but in the end, fewer batters make outs. In Leiter situations, compared to all others, pitchers are apparently valuing strikeouts and accepting the additional risk of a walk, but more to the point, just trying to keep the other guy from hitting the ball.
The first control group that we looked at was to see whether the fact that it was a close game made a difference, and the results were similar in that pitchers got more careful. I’d suggest that what we’re seeing here is an extension of those findings. When the opportunity for a win is on the line, pitchers get into a different strategic mindset. Maybe they’re reaching back for something here, but there’s a difference between accepting a different risk profile for the likely outcomes and being better at retiring batters, which is the pitcher’s job.
What it Means
There just isn’t evidence that all of that will to win actually translates into any benefit in terms of the outcome of the at-bat. A starter in that situation is nothing more (or generally, less) than we would expect him to be, and that’s a tired guy nearing 100 pitches. That may still be a good pitcher, and he may get the batter to ground out to second, and his team might get him the win in the next inning. But if there’s a lesson to be learned here, it’s that one should not confuse a desire to win a game or to get an extra attaboy on the stat sheet with some sort of extra talent that will help accomplish that goal.