For Want of a Stat, the Game Was Lost


Last night’s game against the White Sox was a mess.

The Royals had a 5-3 lead when Bruce Chen took the mound to start the fifth inning. He gave up a single, got two flyouts and then A.J. Pierzynski hit a line drive up the middle. The Royals sent pitching coach Dave Eiland to talk to Chen but it did no good. On the second pitch, Dayan Viciedo golfed a homer to left-center to give Chicago the lead.

Now, it was a tough pitch to hit and Chen didn’t make a mistake. Viciedo hit one out he could have easily let go, but Chen wasn’t sharp most of the start, either.

Ned Yost said later he could have pulled Chen earlier in the game or, if it were the sixth inning, the second hit would have been his last batter. He admitted that with it being the fifth, he wanted to leave Chen in to get the third out and qualify for the win. In doing so, the Royals fell behind, and, despite some scraping and clawing to tie the game and retake the lead, ultimately lost in the 14th inning.

I get it. Yost wanted to get his veteran the win in his stat column. It’s not the first time a manager has done so, and it won’t be the last.

But it really should be the last, and here’s why:

Pitcher wins don’t tell the whole story. They tell you that a pitcher was in the game when his team took the lead and he was the earliest pitcher to appear with that lead. Usually, it’s a starter. But a pitcher win doesn’t tell you the quality of a pitcher’s appearance. It doesn’t qualify that he may have walked six batters and gave up six runs but because his team scored seven, he’s the winner. It only tells you who was on the mound when that team had the lead.

Fast forward to the bottom of the ninth. Billy Butler hits a chopper that somehow gets him on second base. Jarrod Dyson pinch runs. If Dyson is able to steal third, or the Royals were able to get a base hit, or he finds any way to score, the Royals win in walk-off fashion. The pitcher who would have “earned” the win would have been Jonathan Broxton.

Nevermind that Broxton blew the lead in pursuit of another misleading stat, the save.

Here’s what a save tells you: a pitcher finished the game and held a lead that was one, two or three runs. Of course, baseball has turned the save into something only closers can get. Nobody else pitches with the lead in the ninth but the closer. Unless they fail spectacularly, that role isn’t changed. Often that’s the best reliever on the team, but sometimes it’s just a guy who’s been a closer before and has the “closer’s mentality”.

Broxton didn’t have it last night. He’s often not had it. Kevin Youkilis singled on the second pitch to lead off. Broxton has allowed 13 of 32 batters leading off to reach base – that’s a .406 on base percentage. So 40% of the time, the leadoff batter reaches against Broxton.

Last night, the single was the least of his concerns. Adam Dunn and Alex Rios walked on four pitches each. So the bases are loaded. There’s nobody out, Broxton is on the brink of disaster. If it were a remote incident, I don’t mind chalking it up to one night after a long break being an issue, but this is a consistent problem with Broxton – he allows too many baserunners.

Broxton drew some support from fans during the All-Star Final Vote. The idea was that, with 20 saves in (then) 23 opportunities, that he was doing his job. While I can’t refute that he eventually got the saves, can anybody feel confident when he comes into a game? How much is on Broxton and how much is just on getting away with it? Last night, for instance, Broxton should have given up the go-ahead run, but a strong throw from Jeff Francoeur, a great effort by Salvador Perez, and a little helpful umpiring turned a run into an out.

Broxton has had ten appearances where he faced three batters and recorded three outs. In only three of those outings has he done so without putting on a runner.

Would anyone’s feelings have been hurt if Yost had brought in Tim Collins or Louis Coleman after the second walk?

I’d like to think that these are isolated problems. But Broxton hasn’t been sharp most of the year and expecting him to keep putting on so many baserunners and maintaining an ERA anywhere near where it is now (2.20) is foolish. It will catch up to him at some point and Yost needs to be ready to play for the team win rather than keeping Broxton just because he’s the “closer”. Fangraphs has Broxton’s FIP at 3.52 and his xFIP at 4.15. I think that’s a lot closer to where he’ll end up than where his ERA is now. He’s stepped into a tough situation. He’s trying to be the same player he was before injury and he’s following Joakim Soria.

Chen has given up six runs in seven of his 19 starts (and four of his last six). He’s given up two or less runs in seven of his 19 starts as well. He’s hit or miss – and you can usually tell by the third inning which it is. Last night, he gave up two homers and three runs in the first inning. The homer against Viciedo was a tough break (because, again, it wasn’t like Chen threw a pitch right down the pipe – it was down and out of the zone), but putting two on and with Chen’s struggles recently, Yost acknowledged after the fact that he should have pulled Chen. Kelvin Herrera was ready in the bullpen.

For the want of that pitcher win, Chen made one more pitch and the game changed.

Maybe next time, Yost will decide if it’s better to ignore the pitcher’s win column if it means the team’s increases by one.