Wednesday, July 31, 2013

On Scherzer, Brian Kenny and wins

The MLB Network has struck gold with the debates between Brian Kenny and Harold Reynolds. And because Kenny champions sabermetrics, he has become somewhat of a darling among the analyst writing crowd. Rob Neyer and others love the guy. But they should not. And Kenny's act is actually counterproductive when it comes to what they are trying to do. Kenny is a bit of a bully.

The analyst writing community is already perceived as an "I am smarter than you," community. Which is unfortunate because they are right most of the time. Being correct and being cocky in your correctness are two different venues. At the same time, being bold and deflating old and outdated writers is good for page hits. So it has worked to elevate the best of the analysts to stars.

Then you get Brian Kenny. The MLB Network boldly calls him a, "sabermatrician." First, I do not know where Kenny cut his teeth on such things. Does he really know his math or has he just done a good job of absorbing what he has read from the analytic elite? If you are going to make that claim, back it up with his pedigree. But perhaps that is on me as I have not researched his background thoroughly.

But the fact is that he wears this mantle as part of his network's world view. Most people on the fringes of these kinds of debates, the casual or older fan, are going to see their first broad stroke of what a numbers guy is going to look like and what he is going to say. But Kenny does not do that first big view justice.

And here is why: He comes across as a sort of arrogant, know-it-all. He is not going to allow himself to lose a fight. He is not going to impart his knowledge in a humble way. He bludgeons you with it. Of course, his network has encouraged this by making it great entertainment. But if Kenny wants to champion the analytic baseball point of view, he is doing more alienating than winning converts to this new religion.

During his arguments with Reynolds and even when he hosts the MLB Tonight broadcasts, he interjects his points in an, "I dare you to disagree and make yourself look stupid," way. For Reynolds, other player-analysts and the old school viewers, their only reaction can be to put their backs up in a defensive posture.

Kenny's latest bombast includes scathing indictments of the "win-loss" statistic. And there is no doubt that the "win-loss" statistic cannot and should not be the way to evaluate pitchers. There are much better tools now to do so. But how sexy and historic in the grand scheme of things is it to destroy completely a statistic that has defined baseball for more than a hundred years?

The Cy Young Award is not what it is because Young had a terrific FIP for his career. It exists because he had over 500 wins in his career. Wins and losses are a part of the fabric of history. Why do we have to completely destroy that to get to a better overall method of evaluating pitchers?

No matter what Kenny, Rob Neyer or anyone else is going to say, a 20-win season will always seem sexier than a 1.80 FIP. And part of that is the history of the game. Again, my question is, do we have to tear down history to have better evaluation tools? Why can't we add the new tools and leave the history alone as long as we all know that some old historic stats are not the be all and end all?

To a large degree, the analyst writers have already won on this issue. The CYA wins for Felix Hernandez and Zack Greinke proved that the bulk of the voters get it.

And yet, it has become a large target for Brian Kenny. I have seen him on at least three occasions denigrate what Max Scherzer has done this season (15-1) because wins do not matter. Several times, Kenny has put Scherzer's numbers against other pitchers to prove that Scherzer is not better than those other guys.

Are Max Scherzer's fifteen wins meaningless? I do not think so. Should that be the only way we evaluate him? No, I do not think that either. Scherzer has had a game score over 60 in fifteen of his twenty-one starts. An average game score is 50. He has kept his opponent under four runs in seventeen of his twenty-one starts. Those wins were not cheaply obtained.

Max Scherzer's FIP is thirty points below his ERA. Scherzer has a 5.29 strikeout to walk ratio. He has a WHIP of 0.92. This is a guy you are going to knock because he is 15-1? Although I am not an analyst and not smart enough, admittedly, to know what the heck I am talking about, Scherzer's fWAR takes somewhat of a hit because his BABIP is low and because his homer rate of 0.88 per nine innings is not elite. I do not see perfection in that fWAR calculation from a non-educated glance.

All I know is that the Tigers have only lost four of his 21 starts. All I know is that fifteen times, he allowed less runs than the other guy. I do not think the "wins" are meaningless. Nor do I think that is the only way to evaluate his season. But I am not ready to throw out the "win" no matter how much it threatens my street cred.

The bottom line for me is that Kenny is doing a disservice to the sabermetric revolution with his brashness and his lack of humility. The bottom line for me is that Max Scherzer's fifteen wins are no accident but I am willing to consider that perhaps Felix Hernandez is having a slightly better season with four less wins. Do I really have to kill the one side of me to have the other?


Bonzodog said...

The bottom line is doing whatever you can to help your team win and get into the postseason. Scherzer has become the #1 starter on that formidable staff when Verlander started having issues and he has kept his team in most ever game he has pitched. Like Morris in the '80s, the bottom line was winning the game. The new stats are interesting and valuable but you can't measure heart and the drive to win and that is the bottom line.

Bryan said...

...and there's the problem with the win. No fan or analyst should be persecuted for being impressed with Scherzer's 15 wins. They're obviously a byproduct, as you mention above, of great pitching.

Baninshing the pitcher win to the dustbin of history would only serve to disconnect us from baseball's past. What does need to be banished is the idea that the win measures "heart" and "drive to win", rather than run prevention relative to run support, something influenced heavily by the pitcher, his defense, his offense, his bullpen, his manager, and like everything else in baseball, a healthy dose of random chance.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Well said, Bryan.

Anonymous said...

And just like last year when Cabrera won the Triple Crown...Kenny will choke again on his attitude and "universal truths" when Max wins the Cy Young.

Anonymous said...

Win 16 on the board. Go Max. Problem for Kenny is the Tigers can score a lot of runs and when that happens early in any game then the game strategy changes and allowed runs becomes part of the coach's decisions, not the pitcher or catcher's call.