WAR, One Pitcher, and Winning it All

Walter Johnson

Walter Johnson

They tell me that the guys with the best WAR are the best players. They also tell me that a great pitcher will win for you. OK, I’ll give them both of those (sorta). But one thing I’ve noticed is that they’re certainly no predictor of a championship. It’s the nature of the game that this would be true. You simply can’t let your ace pitcher (the one with the best WAR) pitch every inning and you can’t let your best hitter (again the one with the best WAR) come up for every at bat. It’s particularly true that you can’t take the guys with the best ever pitching WAR and find a lot of World Series championships.

I’ve been particularly critical of pitching WAR (but not as much critical of offensive WAR) ever since I saw the numbers and read the ever-changing formulae. But let’s accept that it’s a good measure of pitching excellence. It still isn’t much of a predictor of how a team will do. I Went down the BBREF list of yearly WAR (which uses BBREF’s version of WAR) looking only for pitchers. I excluded all pitchers who showed up before the advent of the 20th Century. In other words I ignored the pre-American League championship games  (1884-1891). I did this because there is great disagreement about how seriously they were taken by the teams and players and how much they were treated as mere exhibitions. I also ignored the Temple Cup Series. Then I looked to find the top 10 WAR seasons for a pitcher in the American League era (1901-present). Of course I ran into Walter Johnson who had three of the top five and four of the top 12. So I changed the way I went at it. I began looking for a new name until I found 10 different pitchers. That took me all the way to 52nd on the list. Of course many of the 52 (and ties) were pre-1901 pitchers (including the first seven) and some were hitters (Ruth four times, Barry Bonds twice, and Gehrig, Yastrzemski and Hornsby once each). Here’s the list I ended up with: Walter Johnson in 1913 (16.0 WAR), Johnson in 1912 (14.6), Dwight Gooden in 1985 (13.2), Johnson in 1914 (13.0), Grover Cleveland Alexander in 1920 (12.8), Cy Young in 1901 (12.6), Steve Carlton in 1972 (12.5), Roger Clemens in 1997 (12.2), Johnson in 1915 (12.1), Fergie Jenkins in 1971 (12.0), Hal Newhouser in 1945 (12.0), Bob Gibson in 1968 (11.9), Alexander in 1916, Pedro Martinez in 2000, and Smokey Joe Wood in 1912 (all at 11.7). So the individual pitchers are Johnson, Gooden, Alexander, Young, Carlton, Clemens, Jenkins, Newhouser, Gibson, Martinez, and Wood (a total of 11).

Let’s notice a couple of things about this list. First, Walter Johnson’s 1912-1915 is, by WAR, the greatest pitching performance by a single pitcher over a  period of years in the last 115 years (and people still debate how good he was). Second, there are a couple of one shot wonders in the list, specifically Gooden and Wood. The remainder are quality pitchers having their peak year.

But for my purpose, the most interesting thing is that only two of the pitchers were with teams that won the World Series: Newhouser and Wood. Gibson got to the Series but the Cardinals lost in seven games (Gibson himself taking the loss in game seven). In 1901 there was no Series, but Young’s Boston team finished second.

This isn’t a knock on pitching WAR, but merely an acknowledgement that it can’t predict pennants. And one great pitcher isn’t a predictor either. It does help if the number two pitcher on your team has a pretty good year also.


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8 Responses to “WAR, One Pitcher, and Winning it All”

  1. William Miller Says:

    Well, of course Gooden won the World Series with the Mets in ’86, but I take your point. WAR is a pretty good indicator of past player performance, but not at all an indicator of how successful any of that pitcher’s teams had been. Just goes to show how much of a team game baseball really is, perhaps.
    Nicely researched, V.

    • verdun2 Says:

      Right about Gooden (and others also won a World Series). Should have made it clear I meant winning a Series in their big year.
      Thanks for reading, Bill.

  2. wkkortas Says:

    I think one of the problems with pitching WAR is that it makes no allowance for different eras in the game. In Johnson’s day, the first line starters had thirty complete games and pitched 350 innings every year, plus they didn’t have to worry about someone beating them with the long ball–if you didn’t have sequential offense, you didn’t score runs. This is not to say that Johnson, Alexander, et al were not great pitchers–but WAR isn’t letting you compare apples to apples, in my view.

    • glen715 Says:

      I’ve tried my best to understand both war and WAR, and neither make any sense to me. I’ve tried to understand Wins Over Replacement and other sabermetrics, but being that I’m poor at math, I just can’t do it anymore. Therefore, I ain’t gonna study WAR no more…


  3. Gene Says:

    I completely agree with your assessment of WAR. I, too, tend to value it more for offense, but I still think it is overused. I think that it is much less valuable in historical purposes for this reason: the talent is much more diluted today with the increase number of teams than it was decades ago. I have to believe that pitchers, by and large, had to face a higher quality of offensive player.

  4. Steve Myers Says:

    So that’s what the W on his hat stood for!

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