On pitchers, stats and run support

Phillies starting pitcher Cole Hamels. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

NEW YORK - The starting pitchers in tonight's All-Star Game possess two of the three highest swinging strike percentages. This, MLB Network's Brian Kenney said during an All-Star Game press conference yesterday, was "a victory" for sabermetrics.

Minutes later, 68-year-old American League manager Jim Leyland tied the score, explaining that he selected Baltimore's Chris Tillman over New York's Hiroki Kuroda to replace Justin Verlander because "I'd almost be embarrassed not to take a guy who is 11-3 to the All-Star Game . . . You get 11 wins by the All-Star break. I think that's pretty hard to keep a guy off."

Kuroda has won eight games for the Yankees, but holds a huge edge in numerous other categories over Tillman and other pitchers Leyland had considered. Kuroda is second in the American League in earned run average and holds an edge as well in many of those polarizing sabermetrics - WHIP, WAR, and of course DIPs.

OK, so I just threw in DIPs (Defense-Independent ERA) because it looks funny.

But you get my drift.

So does Cliff Lee, just a year removed from a season in which he pitched well enough to win and didn't. So, too, does Cole Hamels, an All-Star in 2012 and this year as much a statistical anomaly as Lee was last.


How do you think the Phillies will fare as they prepare to begin the second half of the season?

Lee had one win and six losses at this time a year ago despite pitching at least seven innings in nine of his 14 starts. He hit this year's All-Star break with 10 wins, the same number that earned Hamels an All-Star nod last season. Meanwhile, Hamels has four wins and 11 losses this year, despite pitching at least seven innings in nine of his 20 starts.

Certainly, Hamels pitched better last year and Lee has pitched better this year. Just not to the disparity their won-lost records suggests. It is the big reason those who dissect statistics dis a pitcher's won-lost record as a misleading measure of their worth. Citing cases like Lee last year and Hamels this year, some have even called it useless as a measuring tool.

From a pure statistical vantage point, it's hard to dispute that.

Even for some of tonight's pitchers.

"Sometimes it can be misleading, I know that," Lee was saying before yesterday's All-Star Game workout at Citi Field. "But I wouldn't say it's overrated because there's value to guys who can go out there and just get wins. It don't matter if you give up four runs or no runs. Just so long as you don't let a team score more runs than your team scores. There's definitely something to be said about that."

There it is again, run support, the slippery elm of the won-lost argument. Lee began 2012 looking like a Cy Young candidate, rolling up 23 innings over his first three starts, including a 10-inning performance on April 18 against San Francisco in which he did not allow a run - and still did not get the win.

At the time his earned run average was 1.96. Two months later it was nearly three runs higher. Clearly he was not the pitcher then that he is 12 months later, or even was later in the season when the Phillies made their late run last season.

So did that early lack of run support eventually take a psychological toll? And if you believe so, doesn't that add to the relevance, even importance, of a won-lost record?

"It does feel good to get wins as a starting pitcher," Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said yesterday. Like Kuroda, his former teammate, Kershaw has an impressive 1.98 earned run average this season and a modest 8-6 record. Unlike Kuroda, his manager, Bruce Bochy, named him to the team.

"I think I lean more towards the stat guys," Bochy said with a grin. "But there are some intangibles you can't really translate into stats. I get that, too. Whatever the reason, when you see your record up there and it's 10-2 as opposed to 5-5 or something, it does feel better.

"I think you just have a ton of confidence when you're getting wins. Like when you give up three runs in the first and the team comes back and gets you a bunch of runs right back, I think you pitch differently. You know you have a chance to win every single night. And I think that's huge.

"But does it really matter? No. There's a lot more stats that will tell you how a pitcher's doing."

For Kershaw and San Francisco All-Star Madison Bumgarner, it's innings pitched. For Lee, it's walks allowed, which probably equates to the same thing. "If I'm walking a ton of guys that's going to contribute to a lot of negative stats everywhere else," Lee said. "That's the one thing I can control. A lot of the other things you can't control. But walks . . . you should at least be able to throw the ball over the plate."


On Twitter: @samdonnellon