Wins and Losses for Major League Pitchers are the most misleading stats in baseball; but for Detroit Tigers starter Max Scherzer, that is not the case. This season, Scherzer is 18-1 and has earned every single one of his league-leading wins.
Scherzer’s .947 winning percentage is eye-popping; Patrick Corbin of the Arizona Diamondbacks comes in second with .813. Scherzer and all-time great Roger Clemens are the only two starting pitchers since 1919 to win 18 of their first 19 decisions in a season. While Scherzer is clearly having a breakout season, it must be noted that he plays for an offensive powerhouse. On an offensively weak team like the Miami Marlins or Chicago White Sox, Scherzer would without question have far fewer wins. A bad pitcher on a good team can easily earn more wins than a good pitcher on a bad team. Consider: the statistically best pitcher in baseball, Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, is only 12-7 on the season for a middle-of-the-pack offensive club.
Scherzer is unfortunately being touted for his win-loss record while it’s his other stats that are more impressive. Scherzer leads the American League in walks/hits per innings pitched, meaning he keeps runners off the base paths. While his earned run average sits outside the top five in the American League and top-ten in all of baseball, it still lies at an impressive 2.82. His ability to strike out batters (185 in 172.1 innings pitched) allows him to escape difficult situations and keep his ERA down. In WAR (wins above replacement player), Scherzer is tied with Matt Harvey for fifth in all of baseball with a 5.4. The numbers aside from his win-loss column are well in line with those of the rest of the Cy Young candidates.
One of the most important aspects of a starting pitcher is how deep they are capable of pitching into the game for their team, so called “inning-eaters.” The more innings a starter pitches, the fewer innings the manager has to use out of the bullpen. Only six pitchers in baseball have thrown more innings this season than Scherzer, and each of them have started more games. This is one reason why Scherzer has racked up the wins; he gives himself more time for his team to put runs on the board.
Detroit is 20-5 in Scherzer’s starts and 73-52 on the season. Most importantly, Scherzer only has three wins that weren’t quality starts (at least six innings pitched with three or fewer runs allowed); all of those starts came within the seasons first six weeks. Since May 15, Scherzer has pitched 17 games, 16 of which were quality starts. The one non-quality start was his first and only loss: he gave up a respectable four runs over six innings of work to one of the best-hitting teams in baseball, the Texas Rangers. His team also provided just one run of support leaving him little chance to pick up the win. In the other four team losses, Scherzer threw quality starts in three of them. To compare, the Dodgers are 15-11 in Kershaws starts; but in 10 of those 11 have failed to score more than three runs and five times have plated one or zero runs. Less run support equals fewer wins. If Kershaw were on the Tigers, it’d be fun to see who could hit the 25-win mark first.
So yes, win-loss records are deceiving and can distort perceptions of pitchers. In Scherzer’s case, his numbers are Cy-Young-worthy even without the recognition of his record setting winning percentage.