Quick: Who leads Major League Baseball in pitcher wins?
Another question: When was the last time you actually looked at the wins leaders in Major League Baseball? I've joked before about the slow decline of the RBI in our popular baseball culture, but that's nothing compared to the win. The only people who seem to pay close attention to pitcher wins anymore are local broadcasters -- it sometimes seems like this is the only thing they pay attention to -- and Murray Chass. Was our own Brian Kenny victorious? Did he really Kill the Win?
The answer to the question, by the way, is Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole, with 14 wins (he got a no-decision Friday night against Clayton Kershaw, who only has nine wins, another damning indictment of the win). Four other men have 13 wins: Houston's Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, Seattle's Felix Hernandez and St. Louis' Michael Wacha. Four others have 12: Toronto's Mark Buehrle, Texas' Colby Lewis, San Francisco's Madison Bumgarner and the Cubs' Jake Arrieta. There are your leaders. No Kershaw, no Zack Greinke, no Max Scherzer, no Sonny Gray, no Chris Archer, no Jacob deGrom, no David Price. Those pitchers, among the best in the game, will be lucky to reach 14 by the time the season is over.
If all those numbers seem unusually low, even for early August, they are. Right now, Cole is on pace to win 18, but it's going to be close. If Cole doesn't reach 18 wins -- and if no one else does either -- it will be the first time no pitcher reached 18 wins in a non-strike season since … ever. Even Al Spalding, whose 1871 Boston Red Stockings only played 31 games in the National Association, ended up with 19 wins.
This is all happening, of course, during a period of pitching dominance, though I suppose that wouldn't make that much of a difference; whether it's a pitching era or a hitting era doesn't actually change the number of wins available. But this is where we were going all along.
This really kicked into gear in the public discussion five years ago, when Hernandez won the American League Cy Young Award despite going 13-12. In fact, "despite" probably isn't even the right word: The record wasn't so much a strike against him as it was perceived, correctly, to be completely irrelevant to the entire conversation.
But this is the way baseball has obviously been moving for years. We've even seen some intriguing wrinkles in the managerial logic that challenge the whole notion of a "starting pitcher" anyway. Rays manager Kevin Cash at one point in June started reliever Steve Geltz in a game against Washington, pinch-hitting for him when his spot came up in the order. Maybe this worked and maybe it didn't, but it was the first time that the tyranny of starter-to-reliever-to-closer had been challenged in many years. It may not be the future, but it's a glimpse at a different strategy, a different way at looking at a starting staff.
In many ways, the "win" stat has held pitching staffs and their managers hostage in a similar fashion to the save. Heaven help the manager whose highest-leverage situation in a game happens to come in the fifth inning of a game in which his team holds a small lead. If you take out your starter for a specialist then, it's seen as an insult to your pitcher rather than a potentially beneficial strategy. Pitchers still value their own wins in a way that's completely bizarre. The goal of the game is to win, but their goal is to win in this artificial construction of specific circumstances: at least five innings, lead when you leave, have your team hold the lead till it's over. The win tells you so little about a pitcher's performance that it's remarkable we ever considered it to have any value at all.
Particularly because if we're going to look at misleading ways to look at a pitcher's value, it's a surprise we didn't just do the most logical thing from the get-go and just look at a team's record in games a pitcher started. This doesn't tell us much -- the Nationals are 13-9 in Scherzer's starts, for example -- but it tells us a little more than the pitcher win does. It might even be fun and create some enjoyable myths to fortify those thirsty game broadcasters. They'd credit guys for "getting the job done," even if they had only played a peripheral role in that proverbial job.
But knowing the myth that built up around the win, maybe it's not wise to invent another one, even one that's (slightly) more helpful. After all, this myth is beginning to fade away. It's surely a bit of an aberration that no pitcher might make it to 18 wins this season; after all, we had three 20-win pitchers (Kershaw, Adam Wainwright and Johnny Cueto) last year. But when starter wins are down across the board, they're disincentivized in general: The idea of a pitcher feeling like he needs 300 wins for the Hall of Fame is about to become a thing of the past completely. Kershaw, the best pitcher in the game for five years running now, has 107 wins in his career; he's on pace for about 230, and that's if everything goes perfectly and there are no major injuries. (We are talking about a pitcher here, even an immortal like Kershaw.) That number will be fewer than David Wells. A 20-win season is still seen as a high-quality achievement, but one born as much out of luck as skill.
Maybe this will be the year we look at the number of wins the top pitchers notch and realize that maybe it's sort of dumb that we keep counting. Baseball has gone through thousands of changes throughout its years, and it has never had its pitching leaders have as few wins as they do right now. I think the sport is trying to tell us something.