Wins Are Overrated

Well, that is a provocative statement.

Just wanted to grab you to read a fairly long rant on what is a gloomy, drizzly Sunday here in Chicago. Of course team wins are exactly what this sport is about.

But it is individual wins that don't mean so much. Exhibit A: the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals, who won 105 games, with not a single pitcher winning more than 16 (Jeff Suppan), and three others (Jason Marquis, Woody Williams, and Matt Morris) winning 15.

So when 'people say' about Kerry Wood, that he 'has to' win 18 or 20 games, causing Wood himself to say this the other day in Mesa:

But ever since I was a rookie, every time I come in here, it's been a key year for me: "You've got to win 20, you've got to win 20."

Wood's career high in wins is 14, set in 2003. Here, however, I am going to tell you about his 2002 season, an otherwise fine season in which he won only twelve games (and the Cubs, of course, sucked, losing 95).

In 2002, Wood could easily have won 19 games. You're saying, uh-uh, he's crazy. And I usually don't do stats here (much), but I'm going to in this post, to illustrate an important point.

In that 2002 season, there were no fewer than seven games in which Wood left the game with the lead in the sixth inning or later, only to see the bullpen blow the lead:

April 10, home vs. New York: Wood left after 7 innings due to a blister, leading 2-1. Jeff Fassero gave up solo homers to Roberto Alomar and Mike Piazza; the Cubs lost 3-2.

June 4, at Milwaukee: Wood left in the bottom of the 8th leading 5-3. It took till the 9th, but Antonio Alfonseca blew the lead, and our man Fassero gave up the winning run in the 11th. This, incidentally, stopped a 114-game streak by the Brewers of losing games in which they had trailed after 8 innings, a ML record.

June 28, at White Sox: Kerry didn't pitch very well, allowing six runs, though only five while actually in the game; he left in the sixth leading 8-5 (the Cubs had blown out to an 8-0 lead after three). A whole bunch of Cub relievers couldn't get anyone out and the Cubs lost 13-9. This was the day when I left the Ballmall wearing my Wood jersey, walking by Sox fans yelling "Cubs suck", and I said to one of them, "I can't argue with you today." That shut them up.

July 17, at Philadelphia: Kerry got even closer, leaving in the bottom of the 9th with a 3-1 lead. Alfonseca gave up the tying runs and Fassero gave up the winning run in the 10th on a bizarre play when, with runners on first and third, Travis Lee hit what should have been an inning-ending double-play ball. Pat Burrell, on first, stopped running; Mark Bellhorn, playing 2B, chased him back to first, during which time Lee reached first safely and Jason Michaels, on third, scored the winning run.

July 22, home vs. Philadelphia: It happened two starts in a row for Kerry, who left this game after six innings leading 5-3, only to see Fassero blow yet another lead for him. This one had a happy ending for the ballclub, though, as the Cubs came back to win 7-6 in the bottom of the 9th. The win went to Dr. Tightpants, whose contribution to the cause was to take a 5-5 tie and turn it into a 6-5 Phillies lead in the top of the 9th.

August 2, home vs. Colorado: Wood left the game after 7 leading 3-2, only to see Alfonseca give up Jack Cust's first major league homer in the 9th to tie it. The Cubs won in 12 when Moises Alou hit a two-run homer, with the win going to Joe Borowski.

August 17, home vs. Arizona: Perhaps the most unbelievable of all seven of these, Kerry threw an efficient 90-pitch six-inning outing, leaving the game leading 2-1, again with a blister. Borowski was one of the anti-heroes this time, immediately giving the lead back with a run in the seventh; then our pal Dr. Tightpants gave up a grand slam to Erubiel Durazo after Alex Gonzalez made an error on a grounder that would have ended the inning (um, sound familiar, fans of the 2003 NLCS?), and the Cubs lost 6-2.

So there you have it -- seven games that Wood put his team in position to win by good pitching; his combined pitching line in those seven starts:

IP H R ER BB SO
46.2 37 16 16 21 48

for an ERA of 3.09, lower than his season ERA of 3.66; and he allowed only three homers in those 46.2 innings.

It was bullpen failure that doomed the Cubs in those games, and in fact, it was bullpen failure that doomed the Cubs most of that 2002 season, and not coincidentally, it was bullpen failure that doomed the Cubs' playoff chances last September.

I have had long discussions with Dave, who has been around baseball longer than I have, regarding this; he says that Wood isn't a "winner" because his win totals have been frustratingly low. But my counterargument to him is as follows: here you see a pitcher who did as any starter is asked to do, pitch well enough to put his team in a position to win the game. In these seven examples, the team failed to win five times, but did come back and win twice (giving the "win" to another pitcher). So, it could be argued that perhaps Wood "should" have had 17 wins, not 19, in 2002, but we are splitting hairs here.

So when 'people say' that Wood, or Mark Prior, or Carlos Zambrano, 'has to' win 18, or 20, games, I just laugh. Baseball is a team game, and all 25 players on the roster must contribute, and that includes the bullpen. More important than individual wins, for Cub starters, is that they make all their starts and stay healthy, something Wood and Prior could not do in 2004.

If Wood and Prior and Zambrano (and Maddux) all win 14 games in 2005, and the Cubs win 100 and the division title because other pitchers got credited with a "W", I think we'll all be happy.

Incidentally, in looking all of this up through Wood's 2002 game log at ESPN.com, I saw something odd. Note the games played on April 15, 16 and 17.

Didn't know MLB had a team in Washington in 2002.

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