This is why the win keeps surviving

June 1st, 2018

Here we are again, talking about pitcher wins. As the baseball landscape changes wildly, with short relievers now starting sometimes, with "starting pitchers" going fewer and fewer innings, with managers worrying about a pitcher going three or (gasp) four times through the same lineup, with complete games becoming unicorns, there is continuing talk that baseball should #killthewin.

What you might not know -- what I didn't know -- is that the win has been close to death a few times through the years. The win has always survived. It has come back stronger than ever. And even now, in our advanced statistical age -- when we can measure the spin of the ball, when we can break down the movement of every player at every instant, when the very idea of giving a single pitcher a victory or defeat feels so outdated and illogical -- well, the win will live on.

Meet Henry Chadwick. You might know the name: He was often called "The Father of Baseball." Chadwick was born and raised in England, where he developed a passionate love for cricket. He came upon baseball shortly before the Civil War and fell in love -- not so much with the game itself but with what the game might become, what he himself could make of the game. Chadwick was one of the first writers to see America's spirit in baseball.

Chadwick spent the rest of his life writing about ways to improve baseball, to make it more scientific, to make it less rowdy and corrupt and more gentlemanly. Mostly though, he wrote about statistics. Chadwick believed in the power of statistics. We can thank him, above everyone else, for making baseball almost certainly the most precisely recorded game in the history of the world.

We can also thank Chadwick for the pitcher win.

Chadwick was more or less alone on the win at first. The majority of people in the late 1800s believed that pitchers should be judged by the number of earned runs they allowed. He had a real problem with that. For one thing, Chadwick had a very strict view of what constituted an actual earned run (he loathed stolen bases, for instance, and thought they represented defensive lapses). For another, he believed that runs allowed did not matter as much as winning. It was all about winning.

In other words, Chadwick was fighting in the late 19th century the same fight that baseball fans would have in bars, on talk radio and on Twitter.

Chadwick began recording the pitcher win in 1884. Nobody bought it, but he didn't stop. Chadwick tinkered with it and recorded pitcher wins in '85. Still nobody bought it. People asked: Why should the pitcher get credit for a team victory?

But Chadwick was very powerful and preposterously stubborn, and he pressed forward. In 1888, The Sporting News began publishing win-loss records, though you could tell by their first explanation that they weren't buying it either:

"It seems to place the whole game upon the shoulders of the pitcher and I don't believe it will ever become popular even with so learned a gentleman was Mr. Chadwick to father it. Certain it is that many an execrable pitcher game is won by heavy hitting at the right moment after the pitcher had done his best to lose it."

Think about that: Written in 1888. Brian Kenny couldn't tweet that any better.

Despite all these doubts, the win just kept coughing and wheezing forward. Nobody even knew the rules -- Chadwick seemed to be keeping those to himself -- but still pitcher win-loss records became a prominent statistic, baseball's version of batting average. That's not a joke about the rules of the win, by the way. A baseball writer named Frank J. Williams found official scorers using eleven different ways to count a pitcher's win during the dead-ball era.

The confusion led to all sorts of crazy problems later, including the now-famous Christy Mathewson-Pete Alexander mess. It was assumed that Mathewson retired with 372 games in his career, the National League record. Well, Pete Alexander -- you might remember him as Grover Cleveland Alexander -- won his 373rd game in 1929, when he was 42 years old. He did not win again, but that was OK. It was enough. Alexander had set the NL record for wins.

Only he hadn't. Everybody had simply forgotten to count a game Mathewson won in 1902. He actually had 373 victories. Baseball added that win back in '46. Alexander died in '50; he lived long enough to chase the record, break the record and then see his record taken away because of sloppy accounting.

In any case, the win could have been crushed at any point during this time. Ban Johnson, the powerful founder and president of the American League, tried to crush it. He had no use for how people were quantifying wins -- there was a Walter Johnson mess that is too complicated to go into here -- so he had the league simply stop releasing any record of wins and losses beginning in 1913.

That could have killed the win, but it didn't. It was too late. By 1913, Chadwick had won the day. Baseball fans furiously complained. Johnson was an obstinate cuss; he didn't give in. The AL did not release its official wins and losses for seven seasons. But with fans screaming bloody murder, baseball guides and newspapers had no choice but to keep their own unofficial win-loss totals. People had to know which pitchers won the most games. Soon, the AL gave in.

There have been other mutinies against the win. The save was invented by the sportswriter Jerome Holtzman mainly because he was outraged over reliever Roy Face's 18-1 record in 1959. The win seemed an entirely corrupted statistic to him, so Holtzman invented and passionately promoted another corrupted statistic that would fundamentally change the game. Irony. Now, there are #killthesave hashtags, too.

So what about the pitcher win in 2018? With teams using all sorts of new pitching strategies -- Tampa Bay's choice to start a one-inning reliever at various times being the hottest at the moment -- the win becomes less and less tenable. We have no idea what starting and relief pitching will look like in two years or five years or 10 years, but we do know it is likely to have starters throwing even fewer innings. As our generation's Chadwick, the baseball writer Bill James says, "The trend of using more and more pitchers in a game is constant through the history of baseball. I see no reason to believe that this trend will reverse."

The more pitchers per game, the less logical it seems to give any one of them a win. We all can see that. Major League teams and many baseball fans long ago stopped concerning themselves with wins and instead focused their attention on more telling stats.

But here's the thing: The pitcher win will survive anyway. It always has survived. It's such an ingrained part of the game, such a huge part of baseball's history, that people are not going to just give it up. The 20-win pitcher? The 300-game winner? These are a part of baseball. Oh, the win will keep on keeping on. Maybe the rules will be altered. The official pitcher win rule, which now states that a starter has to go five innings to get the win, was changed in 1950. Maybe that will be changed again. Maybe there will be a point system invented to determine who gets the win.

But the win will survive. The win is harder to kill than James Bond.