It’s a tough time to be a traditional baseball fan, especially one with internet access. Last night, the Detroit Tigers finally slayed their dragons with a win in Cleveland, their first in 14 tries at Progressive Field. In the game, a pair of Tigers reached milestones that should be celebrated. But in this day and age, the celebrations need to be kept quiet, lest we meet the wrath of the more sabermetrically inclined.
Tigers ace Justin Verlander collected his 100th career win last night by tossing seven innings of three hit, three run ball. Jose Valverde, the club’s two-time all-star closer, sat down the Tribe in order in the ninth to collect his 33rd save in 33 tries this season. His 33 straight sets a new club record for most consecutive saves in one season, passing Willie Hernandez’s mark of 32 in a row. After the game, in the Tigers’ clubhouse, the team shared in some celebratory champagne to mark the achievements of both hurlers.
Verlander is the only active pitcher under the age of 30 to have 100 career victories. This should be just another piece of his ever-growing legend, a stepping stone on his way to Cy Young hardware this year, and perhaps to becoming one of the all-time great Tigers down the road. He reached the century mark in just 191 career games; since 1919, only 12 pitchers have gotten there faster. He also took over the major league lead in wins this season with his 17th.
Unfortunately, pitcher wins have become a taboo subject on baseball blogs. Don’t celebrate too loudly, else you might upset the fans of advanced metrics. Pitcher wins, they’ll tell you, is a useless stat that does nothing to show how well a pitcher actually does his job. For the most part they’re right. You have to look no further than Doug Fister to see the evidence. Fister, you might recall, joined the Tigers at the trade deadline, bringing with him an ugly 3-12 record, but a sparkling 3.30 ERA. After all, if his teammates didn’t score four runs last night, Verlander’s outing would have resulted in a loss instead of a win.
So 100 wins might not mean as much as it did even five years ago, not with all the people helping to spread the knowledge of looking past the traditional stats to gauge a pitcher’s true skill level, but as long as wins is still an official stat, I’ll celebrate Verlander reaching this milestone. Obviously, the guy just knows how to win.
As controversial as it might be to celebrate Verlander reaching the century mark in wins, it’s even more disgusting (to many) to even discuss Valverde and his consecutive saves record. There are many, probably more than the number of folks who will scoff at Verlander’s wins, that will tell you how useless the save stat is and how managers (not just Jim Leyland, but all managers) are actually undermining their own teams by mis-using their top relief arm. More than that, there is wide-spread disgust at the process by which general managers have been overpaying for a useless stat.
The problem is that regardless of whether or not you agree with the way Leyland uses Valverde (and again, you’d be disagreeing with the way every manager uses every closer), regardless of your feeling about saves and the dollar signs that follow those chosen to accumulate the stat, you must at least acknowledge the existence of a closer and the existence of the stat, no matter how mis-guided you think it is. The bottom line is that every team has a designated pitcher that they use in the ninth inning with a lead of three or fewer runs; every team does this.
Not one of those pitchers, save Valverde, has held on to the lead they were given every time they’ve been asked to do so this season. And further, not one Tigers closer since the save rule was created has held on to the lead they’ve been asked to protect, without fail, as often as Valverde has done it this year for Detroit.
Yes, we now have more information than ever before at our fingertips. We can see, with just a simple search, that Valverde could be used in higher-leverage situations than he is. We can see that Verlander is great not because he knows how to win, but because he also leads the league in strikeouts and WHIP.
The purpose of this piece isn’t to bash the saberists (or sabermetricians – whichever you prefer); it’s to note that while these two milestones are associated with stats that many feel are products of a bygone era in baseball, there remains a place for traditional stats as well. When used in concert, traditional stats and advanced metrics can and will paint a clearer picture of the players overall skill. Just as wins alone shouldn’t define who is the league’s top starter, neither, in my opinion, should that be determined solely by WAR.
Verlander, last night, did something great and he did it faster than all but 12 other guys in the past 92 years. Valverde did something that no Tigers pitcher has ever done before. Whether or not you like the milestones they reached, or the stats behind them, there is no question in my mind as to whether or not these achievements should be celebrated.