Ruane: Old-tyme pitching decisions (1916-49)

From SABR member Tom Ruane at Retrosheet on July 5, 2012:

Among people who take their baseball analysis seriously, pitching wins and losses are not a fashionable statistic. They argue that there are a host of better metrics for evaluating pitchers (ERA+, FIP and so on), and they certainly have a point. Still, I suspect that even they are not immune to the simple charms of a won-loss line, and would be much more likely to watch a meaningless season-ending game if one of the starting pitchers began the day with nineteen rather than eighteen wins.

For the most part, wins and losses are pretty straightforward and understandable. If you were the last pitcher on the mound for your team when they take the lead for good, you get the win. If you are charged with the last go-ahead run, you lose. Oh, things can get complicated if the first pitcher for the winning team fails to last five innings, but even then, the situation is almost always pretty clear-cut.

It wasn’t always that way. There was a time when the rules weren’t so straightforward, when official scorers (and sometimes even league presidents) could be creative in their choices of winners and losers. Or could they?

In the spring of 1916, John Heydler, the Secretary of the National League, sent a letter of instructions to his official scorers. In the section entitled “Basic Rules for Determining Games Won and Lost Where Two or More Pitchers Participate on a Side,” he wrote:

“While it is not possible to make hard and fast rules for determining which pitcher should be credited with winning, or charged with the loss of a game, yet there are certain fundamental rules in arriving at a decision which have stood the test of criticism and which are as follows:

“1. When one pitcher is relieved by another with runners on bases, charge up all such runners, in case they score, to the first pitcher. The relieving pitcher, coming into the game ‘cold,’ and possibly in the midst of a batting rally, cannot be held responsible for runners he may find on the bases; nor should he be charged up with the first batsman he faces reaching first if such batsman had any advantage because of the wild pitching of the first pitcher.

“2. Where the relieving pitcher goes in with the score tied on even innings, he must win or lose the game, regardless of the number of innings or how effectively the first pitcher may have pitched. If the first pitcher is relieved with the score in his favor,and later the score is tied up off second pitcher, then the latter wins or loses. A tie game at any stage (with no one on bases) must be considered tor all intents and purposes the start of a new game for the second pitcher.

“3. Where the first pitcher is retired after pitching. say, seven innings, he is entitled to the benefit of all runs by his side in an equal number of innings. For instance, Brown of the home club has pitched seven innings, with the score 2 to 0 against him. He is taken out when his turn at bat comes in the seventh. Before close of that inning his team has scored two runs. Brown retires with the game a tie, and the next pitcher becomes responsible.

“4. Do not give the first pitcher credit for a game won, even if score is in his favor, unless he has pitched at least the first half of the game. A pitcher retired at close of fourth inning, with the score 2 to 1 in his favor, has not a won game. If, however, he is taken out because of his team having secured a commanding and winning lead in a few innings, then he is entitled to the win. The good judgement of the scorer must determine in such cases, as much depend on whether the pitcher is relieved because of ineffectiveness, or because he has a commanding lead, or because it becomes necessary, at a critical stage, to replace him by a stronger batsman.

“5. Regardless of how many innings the first pitcher may have pitched, he is charged with the loss of the game, if he is retired with the score against him, and his team is unable thereafter either to tie or overcome that lead.”

For the most part, this is a pretty modern view.

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Originally published: July 5, 2012. Last Updated: July 5, 2012.