Of all the meaningless…


The following essay was originally sketched out back in May of 2006. It is being presented here as a From the Backpack special, but…

I haven’t been able to track down any records showing it was posted on the In My Backpack web site, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it was. On a few occasions there have been some changes and updates made around The ‘ville. Some involved computer issues, some general redesigns and overhauls. The end result has been that a few pieces—intentionally and unintentionally—were once posted and are not today.

The last notes I can find for dates list the most recent version before this, effectively the final draft version, as being saved on May 8, 2006.

I have gone over the material from that older draft and re-written a large portion of it for this posting.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It didn’t take long.

I was watching the Boston Red Sox opening day game against the Texas Rangers.

Opening day.

As Kevin Millwood completed his warm-up tosses, Don Orsillo (on NESN) tossed out the information most of us knew was coming: Millwood had a great ERA in 2005, but his losing record was at least in part attributable to lack of run support.

Now this is nothing against Orsillo. He’s a very good broadcaster. Underrated and underappreciated. I really enjoy his work, and the true details of the claim about Millwood are accurate. In fact, it was virtually a requirement that he pass it along once or twice. And… well… he did go on and mention it a second time during that very first stretch of the telecast.

The thing is, I really consider run support to be one of the most meaningless of statistics.



Because so much else needs to be factored in the idea before you can arrive at that result. It’s like saying all strikeouts are the best outcome of an at bat for the team in the field.

Yes… strikeouts are good. But usually, strikeout pitchers end up throwing more pitches. And while research may show that in many cases, high strikeout pitchers aren’t throwing more total pitches, I would say we might need to consider the weight of a true purpose a tremendously higher number of pitches, I believe you should be investigating the weight and stress of those pitches. By that, a pitcher throwing for a strikeout might be trying to throw harder or be a bit more precise with location, thus increasing the load of each pitch. In short, all 80-pitch outings are not the same.

So, strikeouts can add stress.

But they also create an action-reaction scenario. Sure, one batter struck out. But did that end the inning? If not, then perhaps instead of a groundball double-play, the strikeout of one batter leads to the next batter stepping up to the plate.

Strikeouts are not always the best outcome.

So… does great ERA and bad record mean no run support?


Who was the opposing pitcher? ~ Quite often, the pitcher you consider the ace of your staff will be matching up with one of the top two starters on the opposing team. If the rotation was able to stay on track… I admit it often doesn’t, for a wide variety of reasons… the ace of your staff should be getting less run support because the opposing pitcher will often be the best that other club has. (By that theory, your fourth and fifth starters should be getting the best run support. They’d matched up against the weaker members of the opposing staff. But we also need to begin getting into which pitchers are getting the most starts and so on.)

How good is the defense? ERA doesn’t reflect the unearned runs. It doesn’t take into account errors. You could have a wonderful ERA while opposing teams are still crossing the plate.

What was the schedule like? ~ No series lasts five games during the season. So, every starting pitcher in a regular five-man rotation doesn’t pitch against the same line-up, in the same stadium, at the same point of the year.

These are just a handful of ideas. And many things balance out over time. Start enough games, over the course of a season, and the numbers that work against you on one night work for you the next. But there are outliers. It’s why I team can have massive success in the outcomes of one-run decisions one year, and then be brutally bad the next.

What we’ve begin seeing discussed a bit more often is how good pitchers can have poor records. ERA is one measuring stick, and low run support matters. But it often isn’t just that simple. What are the batting averages of opposing hitters? How good or bad is the defense backing that pitcher up? Does the pitcher tend to average a high or low number of runners per inning?

A pitcher that is coasting along, few runners on base, may not need tremendous play after tremendous play to get out of danger. But one giving up hits and walks could have a low ERA in spite of what they are actually doing.

So, what do I know about the Cleveland Indians in 2005? The team won 93 games and lost 63. They had a winning record. Kevin Millwood pitched for that 90-plus win team and had the best ERA in the American League. He had a losing record (9-11 in 30 starts). A lot of material in there. But no one has told us who he pitched against and whether or not Cleveland did score fewer runs in the games he started. You know, the details that might provide some clues.

Oh… yeah… as I put the finishing touches on this piece, Texas is 11-11 this year. Millwood is 1-2. Must be because the Rangers can’t score runs with Millwood on the mound either.

Along the same lines… but it really isn’t a stat… I want to mention a theory on why I never get the Rookie of the Year Award right.

Good teams rarely play rookies.

Check out the basic starting line-ups of Boston and New York. With the exception of Robinson Cano last year, you won’t see a rookie. It takes extremes… unexpected extremes… to put a rookie into the starting line-up of a team with playoff potential, especially one of the teams that is spending money to bring free agents in to fill holes instead of promoting from the farm system.

Some teams just don’t get the same amount of rookie exposure as others. Some situations change from February and March in amazingly unexpected ways. Oakland consistently brings in new talent because they don’t spend $150 million to keep their players. The A’s have had the last two American League rookies of the year. Last year Ryan Howard (Philadelphia) got his chance because of an injury.

My point is, it just isn’t as easy to get a grasp on unproven talent as it is to say that Guerrero or Pujols will be one of the best players.

I admit this theory needs a bit of ironing out. But the fact remains that no one expected Dontrelle Willis in 2003 to perform at that level for the Marlins.

Stats and numbers matter. But they don’t exist in a vacuum. As a result, occasionally statements of truth end up not being supported by the entire set of facts.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com