In Baseball You Are What You Pretend Not to Be
Are the 2017 San Francisco Giants as bad as their current 27-51 record, and their enormous -107 run differential?
Well, yes, by definition the Giants are exactly as bad as their win/loss record shows.
The idea that these players, Manager Bruce Bochy, and General Manager Bobby Evans somehow don’t own this historically terrible performance is disrespectful to the players and front offices of MLB teams who are striving, succeeding and consistently performing well in 2017.
And as we’ve discussed in recent posts, the San Francisco Giants have been a mediocre performing team for the past three plus years. While 2017 has been a particularly harsh crash and burn, this is actually the logical progression for a franchise trying to live off what it did years ago.
Typically, the official party line from the Giants front office, and therefore also from the local sports media, is geared to deflect any criticism of Giants management or of Giant players as this disaster unfolded.
You’d think that would be hard to do with a 27-51 record, but in San Francisco it actually plays with most fans.
Briefly put, Giants ownership and management are, 1) shocked (shocked!) at this strange turn of events; 2) confused by why it’s happening; and, 3) unbelieving that this team of champions could perform so poorly.
When you think about it, if they really believe all that, it means that the people running the San Francisco Giants are confessing that they’re clueless. Management’s defense is that they’re really not very good at their jobs—so by inference it therefore can’t be their fault.
Quality Starts: Baseball’s Biggest False Positive
In the difficult effort to find something edible in this nasty 2017 stew the Giants front office spins whatever it can to make their fragile fanbase feel better.
The latest fluff is that Giant pitchers are throwing a lot of “quality starts”. Which feeds nicely into the “this is so confusing” dodge, and also suggests that, “Hey, San Francisco’s starting pitching is actually pretty good!”.
The “quality start” statistic was conceived by then twenty-seven-year-old Philadelphia sports writer John Lowe in 1985 with the idea of giving starting pitchers credit for a decent performance. A QS is defined as six or more innings pitched with three or less runs allowed.
The San Francisco Giants are currently are 3rd in the Major Leagues with 41 “quality starts”. The Washington Nationals lead the Majors with 48 QS.
“That’s mighty peculiar”, San Francisco Chronicle sports writer Henry Schulman recently wrote about the number of QS by Giants starters.
But given that the quality start actually tracks mediocre pitching performances, it’s not at all peculiar. Because Giant starters have been the definition of mediocre in 2017.
Here’s something you should know about this ridiculous statistic: the Detroit Tigers (33-42) are 4th in the Majors with 40 QS, and the Atlanta Braves (36-39) are 7th.
The motivation for creating the quality start was to try and deal with the fact that pitcher “wins” and “losses” have virtually nothing to do with individual pitcher performance.
In creating the quality start John Lowe made one of the first attempts to try and minimize the importance of pitcher wins/losses, which is a good thing. (See my exacting bonus diatribe on pitcher wins and losses in the addendum to this piece.)
So why does the quality start not pass the smell test?
- By definition three earned runs in six innings is a 4.50 ERA. As many have pointed out before me, that would be a startling new definition of the word “quality”.
- In 2011 writer John Dewan, of Bill James Online and co-creator of Baseball Info Solutions, looked at ten years of ballgames where the starting pitcher went exactly 6 IP with 3 ER. In those 2,118 games the quality start team’s winning percentage was under .500.
- Dewan also discovered that, over the same period, when a starting pitcher goes 6 to 8 IP and gives up 3 runs (5,039 games) their team still wins less than 50% of the time.
- The quality start is one-dimensional and tone-deaf to actual good pitching performances. If a starter pitches 9 innings and gives up 4 ER, that’s a 4.00 ERA. Which somehow doesn’t qualify as a QS!
I get that the Giants are grabbing at anything positive right now, and I don’t blame them. But touting the “quality starts” of a pitching staff currently 24th out of 30 Major League teams with a 4.82 ERA, and 26th in opposing team OPS (.788) is asking a lot, even from San Francisco’s sometimes robotically devoted fanbase.
While it is disappointing to see what the Giants have become this season, it didn’t have to happen. It was allowed to happen.
********Extra Bonus Addendum********
Why Pitcher Wins and Losses Are FUBAR
In professional sports only Major League Baseball assigns a team statistic (wins/losses) to an individual player (pitchers). The goal should be to accurately measure individual starting pitcher performance, apart from the many outside factors that greatly determine the final score.
Here is the short list of why wins and losses tell us virtually nothing about what a starting pitcher does on the mound:
- Scoring runs. Some teams have great hitting line-ups, some don’t. A pitcher’s win/loss record is completely dependent on his team’s run production.
When a team scores less than 3 runs, many brilliant pitching performances become a “loss”; when a team scores five or more runs, many poor pitching performances become a “win”.
- Not all fielders are equal. This isn’t just about errors made behind a pitcher. Some teams have infielders and outfielders with outstanding range, some don’t. Some players have great arms, some don’t. Some players routinely take smart routes to balls in play, some don’t.
These are critical defensive skills that greatly determine winning or losing, and have nothing to do with pitching performance.
- Bullpen effectiveness. Some teams have a great bullpen, some don’t. Since complete games by starters are rare, every starting pitcher relies on his bullpen for positive results. The starting pitcher is in the dugout or shower when relief pitchers are on the mound either preserving a win or coughing up a loss.
This is a huge outside factor that has nothing to do with a starting pitcher’s performance.
- Manager decision-making. There are smart and not-as-smart managers in Major League Baseball. Exactly when they remove a starting pitcher, especially with runners on base, is a big determining factor in whether or not that pitcher gets a win or loss.
This is why “wins” and “losses” are slowly but surely not being referenced in any rational discussion about starting pitching performance. Indeed– kill the win!
WHIP, FIP (Field Independent Pitching), xFIP (Expected Field Independent Pitching), and several other advanced statistics are by far the most accurate measures of individual pitcher performance.