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And the Winner is…

August 18, 2019

Hugh Atkins

The rules for awarding wins and losses to pitchers are a bit quirky and, at times, unfair. A starting pitcher who goes a minimum of five innings, leaves the game with his team in the lead, and his team never surrenders that lead, gets the win. However, as serious baseball fans know, when relief pitchers enter the game and the lead changes, things get complicated.

Last week the Atlanta Braves beat the New York Mets 6-4. Dallas Keuchel pitched six shutout innings and left the game with a 1-0 lead. Sean Newcomb started the seventh inning and gave up the tying run; Chris Martin relieved Newcomb and surrendered the go-ahead run. The Braves scored five runs in the bottom of the seventh to go up 6-2. Shane Greene pitched a scoreless eighth inning, but then Mark Melancon gave up two runs in the ninth before giving way to Jerry Blevins, who got the final out.

Martin got the win, despite giving up the lead, because he was the pitcher when the Braves permanently took the lead. Keuchel, the game’s most effective pitcher, got no decision.

The following night, Julio Teheran gave up six runs to the New York Mets and left the game before the third inning with the Braves trailing 6-0. Josh Tomlin came in, gave up a run in the third, two more in the fifth, and another in the seventh. The Braves scored single runs in the third, fourth, sixth, and seventh innings, and went into the bottom of the ninth still behind 10-4.

© T.C.G.

The Braves scored four runs in the ninth, but ultimately lost 10-8. Teheran got the loss, even though the Braves overcame the runs he surrendered. Had the Braves tied the game before Teheran left and Tomlin had given up the lead, Tomlin would have gotten the loss.

Because of these rules, win-loss records for pitchers can be misleading. Elroy Face won 18 games in relief for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1959, setting a record that still stands; he had only one loss. But was he as dominant as such a gaudy record suggests? Here is a breakdown of his wins:

  • 6 wins: entered a tie game and held the opponent scoreless until the Pirates eventually scored the winning run
  • 5 wins: entered the game with the Pirates ahead, gave up the lead, and the Pirates came back and took the lead while he was still in the game
  • 3 wins: entered a tie game, gave up a run(s), but stayed around until the Pirates came back and won
  • 2 wins: entered a game in which the Pirates trailed and held the opponent scoreless until the Pirates took the lead
  • 1 win: entered a game with the Pirates behind, gave up a run, but the Pirates came back while he was still in the game
  • 1 win: from the official scorer for being the most effective reliever in a game where the starter did not go long enough to qualify for the win

In Face’s one loss, he entered the game with the Pirates in the lead, gave up the lead, and the Pirates lost.

I’m not sure Face’s 18 wins are as impressive as they look, but he also had 10 saves. Examining each of his 57 games from that season, I found only four in which, by today’s standards, he blew a save. That is an impressive season no matter how quirky the rules for wins are.

It just goes to show that sometimes you have to look deeper than a pitcher’s win-loss record to see how good his season really was.

(All statistics are from Baseball Reference; all game details are from Retrosheet.)

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