Adjusted W-L: A Study of the Unlucky

If you have read any of my work on Starting Pitchers and SP Effectiveness it will come as no surprise that I strongly dislike Win-Loss records. 
In the 2005 season, Johan Santana posted the following numbers-

  • 16-7 actual W-L
  • 2.87 ERA
  • 7.02 IP/gm
  • 231.2 IP
  • 0.97 WHIP
  • 5.29 K:BB
  • 3 CG/2 SHO
  • 33 Games Started

In 2005, Bartolo Colon won the AL Cy Young Award.  Any idea of how many of the above categories, which we all intuitively equate to pitching effectiveness, Colon outranked Santana in? 
One.  One category.  Colon beat Santana in only one category in 2005.  Care to venture a guess to which it was?  Combine my sarcastic tone with the title/first line of this article if you need help.  That’s right.  The one category he outperformed Santana in was WINS, 21-16.  Santana outperformed Colon in every other statistical category in 2005 and somehow lost the Cy Young.  Not to take anything away from Colon’s season but he clearly did not perform better than Santana in any category other than wins and they had the same number of starts.  And to say that the Angels made the playoffs strictly because of Colon is just slightly over borderline ridiculous. 
For reasons unbeknownst to me, W-L has become an extremely significant barometer when measuring the quality of a season and of a career.  We invest a ton of stock into a statistic that paints us half of a whole portrait.  Ask yourself this – what does a W-L record tell us?
Does it provide a ratio of how often someone pitched well to how often he didn’t?  No, because a Win does not always equate to a well-pitched game and a loss does not always equate to a poorly-pitched game.
Does it take into account the fact that some teams score more than others?  No, because you get credited with a win if you last at least five innings and your team never relinquishes the lead once you leave.  It does not matter if you give up six runs in seven innings as long as you meet that above criteria.
DETERMINING QUALITY
A few weeks back I introduced my statistic, AQS – Adjusted Quality Start, which refers to when a pitcher either goes 6+ IP while surrendering 3 or less earned runs or 7.2+ IP while surrendering no more than 4 earned runs.  Using the AQS allows us to find the ratio, mentioned in the question above, of how often a pitcher performed well in comparison to not performing well.  Regardless of whether or not you received the deserved decision, or whether or not you even received a decision, if you meet the criteria of an AQS it means you pitched well and, in theory, deserve to win.
Springboarding off of the AQS, I began to separate W-L records into what they really were – a combination of Cheap Wins, Tough Losses, Legitimate Wins, and Legitimate Losses.  The legitimate decisions refer to games that a pitcher either recorded an AQS, and won, or did not record an AQS and lost.  The reverse can be said for the Cheap Wins/Tough Losses.  Failing to record an AQS and getting a win really should not happen and the same can be said for garnering a loss while recording an AQS.
ADJUSTED W-L RECORDS
I will use the 2007 season of John Smoltz to put this to use.  By all accounts he had a great year but he often gets lost in the Peavy/Webb shuffle when discussing the best in the NL this past season.  Peavy won 19 games, Webb won 18, and Smoltz only won 14.  Something deep down tells us that Smoltz had a better season than his 14-8 record would indicate, but how much better?
Looking more closely at his 14-8, we see that he had 0 Cheap Wins, 5 Tough Losses, 14 Legit Wins, and 3 Legit Losses.
If we take the Cheapies and Toughies out, Smoltz is left with a 14-3 record of legitimate decisions.  I want to go a bit further, though, because he recorded 22 decisions no matter how we look at it.  He legitimately deserved to go 14-3, but there were five games he lost that he pitched well enough to win.
With that in mind, I began to adjust the W-L records of pitchers and see what would happen if they were credited with a Win for every Tough Loss and a Loss for every Cheap Win, on top of the Legit Wins and Legit Losses.
When we apply that to Smoltz, his 2007 Adjusted W-L would be 19-3.  When we do the same to Peavy and Webb we get a 21-4 record for Peavy and a 20-8 record for Webb.
Essentially, Smoltz should have won 19 of his 22 decisions, Peavy should have won 21 of his 25 decisions, and Webb should have won 20 of his 28 decisions. 
If we are going to use W-L record as a barometer of quality, then we should use this Adjusted W-L instead since it actually does give us the ratio of how many times a pitcher performed well relative to the decisions he received.
Below is a table featuring the Actual W-L records and the Adjusted W-L records of some NL pitchers from 2007.

NAME

W-L

AD. W-L

NET LUCK

Jake Peavy

19-6

21-4

-2

John Smoltz

14-8

19-3

-5

Cole Hamels

15-5

17-3

-2

Brad Penny

16-4

19-1

-3

Tim Hudson

16-10

20-6

-4

Ted Lilly

15-8

19-4

-4

Matt Cain

7-16

16-7

-9

Ian Snell

9-12

13-8

-4

Dontrelle Willis

10-15

15-10

-5

Adam Eaton

10-10

6-14

+4

As we can see, Brad Penny had the best Adjusted W-L of any NL pitcher as he truly deserved to lose only one of his decisions.  If he received proper run support and was a bit luckier in the games he recorded decisions, he would have posted a 19-1 record.  I wonder if it would have been a different Cy Young picture if he did. 
NET LUCK
Look at the cases of Matt Cain, Dontrelle Willis, and Adam Eaton.  Cain finished the season with an actual W-L of 7-16, even though he deserved to go 16-7.  That means he was unlucky nine times.  Dontrelle Willis should have been 15-10 even though he ended up 10-15, meaning he was unlucky five times.  Yes, by all accounts Dontrelle had a down season, but he did really deserve to win 15 of his decisions. It was just how bad his 10 deserved losses and no-decisions were that turned his season upside down.
On the flip-side, Adam Eaton finished the season 10-10, even though he deserved to be 6-14.  While Cain and Willis were very unlucky, Eaton turned out to be lucky four times.
When we look at the number of Cheap Wins and Tough Losses, we can subtract the difference, express it as a + or – number and detail which pitchers were the luckiest and unluckiest.  This is a bit different than the Pythagorean Formulas used to determine what a team’s record should be.  The team formulas look at the season, as a whole, and provide estimates as to what an overall record should be based on how many overall runs are scored and given up.
It does not make sense to use that here, because if a pitcher gives up 10 runs in Game 1, and 1 Run in Game 2, the average would come out to two bad starts, even though the starts are completely separate and the damage was done in one game.  The team formulas evaluate the entire forest without looking at each individual tree.
Looking at each individual tree needs to be done to really show which pitchers were luckiest and unluckiest.
In the case of Cain, he had 0 Cheap Wins and 9 Tough Losses.  Net Luck = 0 – 9, meaning that Cain had a Net Luck Rating of -9, or in other words was very unlucky.  There were no recorded Wins that he should have lost but there were nine recorded losses he should have won, or at least not recorded a loss.
Adam Eaton had 5 Cheap Wins and 1 Tough Loss.  5 – 1 = 4.  Eaton’s Net Luck was +4, meaning he was lucky four times.  Positive numbers correspond to being lucky, negative numbers correspond to being unlucky, and 0 corresponds to receiving exactly what you should have received.
Aaron Harang was 16-6 with 0 Cheap Wins and 0 Tough Losses.  He had a great season and deserved to go 16-6 in his decisions.  He would have a Net Luck Rating of 0, since he was not lucky or unlucky.
When pitchers tie in either luck or lack of luck the statistic we should look to is AQS %, which refers to the percentage of times a pitcher recorded an AQS.  With lucky pitchers, a lower AQS % tells us they pitched well less, and so they are luckiest because they recorded the most amount of Net Luck while pitching well the least amount of time.  For unlucky pitchers we look at the highest percentage because it tells us that the pitcher was not only unlucky enough to lose games he should have won but that he also pitched well a higher percentage of times.
For instance, Scott Olsen, Adam Eaton, and Byung-Hyun Kim all tied with a +4 Net Luck Rating, meaning they were the luckiest NL pitchers.  Olsen had an AQS % of 33.3, Kim at 27.3, and Eaton at 26.7.  Therefore, Adam Eaton was the luckiest NL pitcher because he received four positive decisions that were unmerited and pitched well the least amount of time.
Though Cain, Bronson Arroyo, and Derek Lowe all ranked higher than Dontrelle and Smoltz, the latter two finished at -5.  Dontrelle had an AQS % of 57.1 and Smoltz at 84.4 %.  Therefore, Smoltz was unluckier than Willis because he received five negative decisions that were unmerited and pitched well way more often.
NET LUCK APPLICATION
When we apply Net Luck to every pitcher in 2007, in both the NL and AL, we get the following results -

  • Luckiest NL SP = Adam Eaton (PHI), +4
  • Luckiest AL SP = Odalis Perez (KC), +4
  • Unluckiest NL SP = Matt Cain (SF), -9
  • Unluckiest AL SP = Dan Haren (OAK), -6

Though Haren pitched well and still finished 15-9, he should have been 21-3.  Odalis Perez actually tied Felix Hernandez of the Mariners at +4, but Hernandez’ AQS % was 57.1 whereas Perez came in at 30.8.
Honorable Mentions for Luck in 2007 go to:

  • Scott Olsen, +4
  • Byung-Hyun Kim, +4
  • Paul Byrd, +3
  • Boof Bonser, +3
  • Jeremy Bonderman, +3

Honorable Unlucky Mentions in 2007 go to:

  • Bronson Arroyo, -7
  • Derek Lowe, -6
  • John Smoltz, -5
  • Mark Buehrle, -5
  • Gil Meche, -5
  • Dontrelle Willis, -5

CAREER APPLICATION OF NET LUCK
Though I do not have all of the data compiled right now, something I am going to investigate over the next few weeks are which pitchers, from 2000-2007, have been the luckiest and unluckiest.
Another usage of Net Luck that fascinates me, and that I am currently researching for my book, involves an application to 300 game-winners, as well as those who are close.  Something tells me that I will find some guys with 300 wins who maybe should not have 300 wins, as well as some guys who are short of 300 that really should have it.  After all, if we are going to use 300 wins as a Hall of Fame barometer, we should at least make sure the wins are deserved.
I am currently involved in conducting this research and if anyone would like to help, please get in touch with me.

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3 Responses to Adjusted W-L: A Study of the Unlucky

  1. Drake says:

    Nice article. I really like your ideas and work. If I had to, I would guess that many more of the recent 300-game winners would not have 300 wins, guys like after the Cy Young’s and them. I would also think a guy like Randy Johnson probably has more Legitimate Wins than some 300-game winners already. I’ll help you research!

  2. Pizza Cutter says:

    Eric, since data are fairly well available for the last 35 years or so (Retrosheet), might this be extended a bit to look at some career numbers? For what it’s worth, our Dutch friend Bert Blyleven might fare rather well in your analysis…

  3. Pizza, that’s what the last paragraph says. Right now I am researching pitchers with close to 300 wins and 300+ wins in their career to see which ones really legitimately have 300 and which ones have a lucky 300… as well as which ones close to 300 actually have more legit wins than those with it.

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