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August 13, 2010

Seidnotes

Those Who Need Support

by Eric Seidman

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On August 5, Felix Hernandez toed the rubber against the division-rival Texas Rangers. Hernandez entered the game with a fantastic 2.79 ERA, and peripherals almost exactly in line with those posted a year ago, when he finished second to Zack Greinke in the American League Cy Young Award voting. The King lasted 6 2/3 innings against the Rangers, allowing three runs on eight hits. The effort might not have been his best, but the line was more than respectable against such an offense-happy club, and if his teammates were anywhere near average offensively, one might have even been able to say that Hernandez kept his team in the game. Unfortunately, the Seattle Mariners mustered zero runs of support for their ace, who would go on to record a loss.

Hernandez was no stranger to a lack of support. In his previous start, he scattered three runs over seven innings against a very solid Twins team and received, again, zero runs of support, recording another loss. On the season, Hernandez has a 2.71 ERA and just a 7-8 W-L record. Wins and losses are in no way the best measures of pitcher performance, but it still looks weird in spite of this knowledge to see such a low ERA alongside such an uninspiring record. But the situation with Hernandez lends perfect credence to the specific reason that wins and losses are not good proxies for success: run support. A pitcher can go five innings, give up seven runs, but be lucky enough that his team scores eight and walk away with a win. Or, Hernandez can pitch wonderfully, receive zero runs of support, and lose, simply because a pitcher decision can’t be handed to an offense.

In his eight losses, Hernandez has received—ready for this—a whopping seven runs of support. Yes, seven, and in four of the losses the Mariners have failed to score for him. Now, as I mentioned, a pitcher is not defined by his record, but it becomes very frustrating when dynamite pitchers end up with substandard won-lost marks when one considers how much this measure plays into the end-of-season awards. As Tom Tango recently showed, Hernandez's seasonal numbers are eerily similar to those posted a year ago; and when I say eerily similar, I mean they are really, really, really similar. The big difference is that last year he finished the season 19-5, while he seems more in line for something like an 11-13 record this season.

The major difference here is his run support—it’s impossible for someone to pitch equally well in two consecutive years and finish eight games “worse” if not for a lack of support. Overall, Hernandez has made 25 starts and received a whopping 68 runs of support, which comes out to be 3.36 per nine innings when stacked up against his league-leading 182 1/3 innings. The 3.36 runs per nine ranks second in the AL among those with 120 or more innings to teammate Jason Vargas, and sixth in the major leagues to Roy Oswalt, Ted Lilly, Wade LeBlanc, Johan Santana, and Vargas.

Hernandez’s strife got me thinking about run support in general and how infrequently it is mentioned. With that in mind, I was able to compute the run support for every starting pitcher in each start from 1995-2009, tallying only the runs of support received while they were in the game. For instance, if Roy Halladay leaves with a 2-1 lead and the Phillies win 6-2, Halladay received two runs of support, not six. From there, I calculated the run support per nine for each pitcher in each year, and compared the marks to their W-L records for the year.

First things first, though, here are the lowest rates in the wild-card era (minimum: 175 innings):

Name

Year

IP

RS/9

W-L

Terry Mulholland

1997

186.2

2.36

6-13

Dennis Springer

1999

196.1

2.43

6-16

John Lannan

2008

182.0

2.57

9-15

Greg Smith

2008

190.1

2.60

7-16

Aaron Harang

2008

184.1

2.64

6-17

Kip Wells

2005

182.0

2.67

8-18

Mark Redman

2005

178.1

2.68

5-15

Roger Clemens

2005

211.1

2.77

13-8

As we should have expected, the run support in the “leaderboard” above correlates strongly to the W-L record. Clemens is certainly an outlier as he managed to prevent runs at an incredible pace that season. Had he received some support, it stands to reason that a shinier record would have led to another Cy Young Award on his mantle. Does run support per nine correlate strongly to W-L record on an overall basis? Running a correlation across all of the qualifying pitchers produces an r of .48, suggesting that about 23 percent of the variance in winning percentage for pitchers can be explained by their run support, which seems a bit low given my expectations.

Next, my mind wandered toward which pitchers with next to no run support from a relative standpoint managed to produce fairly high winning percentages? These would likely be aces, but as Clemens’ 2005 season tabled above shows, even with tremendous run-prevention skills, getting no support produced just a 13-8 record. Here are the highest winning percentages in the wild-card era for pitchers who received <= 3.75 RS/9:

Name

Year

RS/9

W-L

W%

Pedro Martinez

1997

3.28

17-8

.680

Brandon Webb

2007

3.62

18-10

.643

Matt Cain

2009

3.68

14-8

.636

Joey Hamilton

1997

3.32

12-7

.632

Brett Myers

2006

3.64

12-7

.632

Roy Oswalt

2005

3.61

20-12

.625

Roger Clemens

2005

2.77

13-8

.619

Kevin Brown

2003

3.58

14-9

.609

It isn’t impossible to produce a great winning percentage with such little run support, but the odds are definitely stacked against the possibility. Then again, certain winning percentages do not necessarily look as good or bad as the respective records. For instance, a .636 winning percentage is great, but does Cain’s 14-8 mark last year make anyone salivate? Didn’t think so. The only 20-game winner in this span to receive fewer than 3.75 runs of support per nine was Oswalt, but there are several future Hall of Famers on the list if we extend it beyond the elite eight.

Hernandez is unlikely to end the season with a shiny record and, because of that, he is very unlikely to receive any support when it comes to the Cy Young Award. In fact, I would go so far as to say that even if Hernandez finishes the season with a sub-2.50 ERA and great peripherals, that he won’t even receive a single first-place vote, simply because of the possibility that his record falls too close to, or under, the .500 line. This is really a shame, because run support seems to be an aspect of the game that is mentioned in passing but which doesn’t have any real pull.

Forgive me for thinking that certain voters may acknowledge a lack of run support for a candidate but ultimately let the ugly looking W-L record sway their vote in another direction. Don’t misinterpret this as my plea to give the award to Hernandez but rather one so that he is not overlooked simply because of a much less meaningful statistic. This leads into a macro issue in that it does not really seem that W-L records are going away anytime soon, so the way I see it is that perhaps metrics that are on the same scale need to be touted much more.

I think it would be much easier for someone less familiar with the more commonly discussed value stats to grasp that a pitcher’s record is affected quite a bit by his run support, and if the goal is to use W-L as a measure of how many good games a pitcher logged relative to the amount of clunkers, allowing for the possibility of cheap wins and tough losses is as suboptimal as it gets. I am all for keeping the chain moving in the areas of determining value, evaluating defense, and deriving the best run estimators, but I also think analysts and hardcore fans can sometimes lose the forest from the trees, forgetting that some of what we might consider the more basic tenets are the most important as far as advancing the reach of analysis and understanding.

At BP, we have an array of statistics in the support-neutral field that all attempt to measure performance while adjusting for run support. Statistics like Support Neutral Wins and Support Neutral Losses, as well as the corresponding Support Neutral Winning Percentage are all important metrics that too often get lost in the fold. Hernandez may be just 7-8 right now, but with league average run support our statistics reports suggest he has more likely been a 15-9 pitcher this year. Using run support to help shape a W-L record is an important tool, but without tangible numbers that make adjustments, claims are more likely to fall on deaf ears.

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

17 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

jsherman
(139)

Didn't Nolan Ryan go 8-16 one season while leading the league in ERA?

Aug 13, 2010 04:10 AM
rating: 0
 
ncassino

Eric, any chance that you could write a follow up article that shows similar charts for the pitchers who received the highest run support and maybe add a column for their ERA (or some other measure of how well they pitched)? It would be interesting to see how exceptional run support aided the W-L records of pitchers (some of whom may not have even pitched that well themselves).
Thank you.

Aug 13, 2010 06:38 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Sure thing, ncassino! Will work on that for next week at some point.

Aug 13, 2010 07:31 AM
 
StatFreak101

This is a conversation I seem to have with my friends when we are taking in any kind of baseball activity.

They are from the school of thought that 'wins matter' and that they will take the pitcher that wins baseball games for his team - regardless of whether they allow 6 runs in 5 innings, etc.

I have laid out a number of scenarios to try and show that there are a number of things the pitcher cannot control - and that greatly impact his ability to record a 'win.'

Some of them have started to see the light - but a few of them refuse to accept this as something significant in baseball.

A scenario I like to lay out for them is the follow:

Leadoff batter hits a ball to SS, SS overthrows the 1b for an error, runner on 2nd. Second hitter sacrifice bunts runner to 3rd. Third place batter hits a sacrifice fly, runner from 3rd scores. Team leads 1-0.

That starting pitcher doesn't allow another base runner the entire game...but his offense fails to give him any run support.

Starting pitcher and his team lose the game, 1-0.

The question I then ask: How is that the fault of the starting pitcher?

Aug 13, 2010 08:18 AM
rating: 0
 
Dan W.

Maybe you need other friends?

Aug 13, 2010 13:23 PM
rating: 3
 
StatFreak101

I have considered it.

Will you be my friend?

Aug 14, 2010 14:17 PM
rating: 3
 
WaldoInSC

We're all friends here in BPland, StatFreak.

Aug 14, 2010 18:17 PM
rating: 1
 
drawbb

Wow, you're friends with Joe Morgan?

Aug 16, 2010 22:47 PM
rating: 0
 
Richie

How much is Safeco depressing run-scoring this year? I know not near so much as to explain things, but I'm still curious.

Aug 13, 2010 09:11 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

StatFreak, yes, that is a common reaction. However, I think it would be much better if, when in a similar situation, you ask those friends why they feel the way they do as opposed to issuing them a barrage of reasons why they are wrong. You might find that these friends aren't too far off of your way of thinking, even if neither party realizes it.

Aug 13, 2010 09:15 AM
 
surfdent48

Great article on run support and W-L records. According to fangraphs, Chris Volstad, who has a much higher ERA than Felix Hernandez, has received a total of just 8 runs of support in his 8 losses this year. Several other pitchers-Grienke, Oswalt,- are suffering the same bad luck. There is way too much emphasis on W-L records which relies on factors the pitcher cannot control.

Aug 13, 2010 09:47 AM
rating: 0
 
roycewebb

I think that W-L records matter to fans with dinosaur perspectives -- sorry, maybe antediluvian is a better word -- because they think that pitchers control more than they do. I remember trying to explain to my freshman roommate, a guy who grew up playing ball and said you could kill him at age 30 if you'd just give him ten solid years as the third baseman for the Mets -- that run support was the biggest factor in won-lost records, and he didn't buy it.

Anyway, his POV was that if the other guy only allowed two runs, then you as a starting pitcher didn't deserve a win unless you could allow fewer than two runs. If the other guy tossed a one-run gem, you knew what you had to do and if you couldn't do it, tough luck. Very primitive thinking that ascribes much more control to the SP than he actually has, even if all action does begin with him. Of course, this was almost 30 years ago and citing Ross Baumgarten's 1980 season (2-12, 3.44 ERA) didn't pull a lot of weight back then. Perhaps a significantly greater number of fans have come over in their understanding of stats in that time.

Aug 13, 2010 10:15 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Royce,

The way I see it is that you're never going to convince 100% of the people you try to convince that W-L doesn't matter. But I think the best way to have a conversation about it is to really dig deep and discuss what the stat tells us compared to what we THINK it tells us, and then take it from there.

For instance, many think that W-L tells us the number of good games vs. the number of bad games, and so a 16-8 pitcher is better than a 12-12 pitcher; the former had more good games compared to bad games. But then we have the issues of a) no-decisions don't imply mediocrity and b) cheap wins and tough losses are lumped in.

One problem is that many fans don't realize that they think W-L described what I wrote above -- once they do, then it is much easier to sway the argument elsewhere. Unfortunately, I blame much of the stats-laden community for W-L still being so prevalent, because there are a good number of people who would rather make fun of a beat writer (who has tons and tons of pull and readers) for citing a W-L record than opening a civil conversation regarding the stat.

Aug 13, 2010 10:45 AM
 
jtrichey

Not pointing fingers, but one also shouldn't say that W-L record doesn't matter at all. Sometimes the stat community goes overboard on that point.

Aug 13, 2010 19:38 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Eric Seidman
BP staff

Realistically, it isn't a good in-season measure of performance. The problem is that, in order to make a point, certain analysts will berate others who use W-L, instead of opening a civil conversation that can actually help advance the field beyond a small percentage of the population.

Aug 14, 2010 09:21 AM
 
awayish

pedro, best ever

Aug 14, 2010 13:49 PM
rating: 0
 
gpbarn9

I have a running "argument" with a guy who insists Kyle Kendrick is a good major league starter because he has a 32-19 record. I tell him "fine, give me another stat of his that would be considered a positive". Then he generally mutters about winning being the only important stat and other various mush.

Aug 16, 2010 07:39 AM
rating: 0
 
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