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Mike Matheny, Alex Reyes, and pitching for the win

Alex Reyes was removed from his first MLB start one out away from qualifying for the pitching win. Was this the right move, and how does it compare with Mike Matheny’s track record?

On Saturday, for the 85th time since Mike Matheny became the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2012 season, the starting pitcher for the Cardinals was removed from a game before he managed to accumulate the five innings necessary to qualify for the “win”, a designation used to assign absolute credit to one pitcher who pitched somewhere between “good” and “at least not so bad that it prevented his team from winning the game”.

Sabermetric-leaning fans and writers have long bemoaned caring about a pitcher’s wins and losses, and it seems as though Major League Baseball teams overwhelmingly agree with them. The Arizona Diamondbacks, armed with perhaps baseball’s most notoriously old-school front office at this point, traded a small fortune last off-season for Shelby Miller. It initially looked like a terrible trade, and it somehow looks much worse in retrospect, but since Miller was coming off of a 6-17 record with the Atlanta Braves, it seems pretty clear that the most tradition-bound team in baseball no longer cares about pitcher wins and losses.

And yet, five innings remains a benchmark for which pitchers strive. Just under 11% of starts in the Mike Matheny era have failed to reach the five inning mark. Most of this group are pitchers with poor performances: the median game which did not reach five innings included four earned runs allowed and a Game Score of 29.

By Game Score, the best sub-5 IP game of the Mike Matheny came from Adam Wainwright on April 25, 2015, in which he was removed due to a nearly season-ending injury incurred while batting. His removal could not possibly have had less to do with his pitching performance. #2 was Nick Greenwood on September 28, 2014, who started an irrelevant final game of the regular season whose utilized personnel complied religiously with the Hippocratic oath of doing no harm to the team’s playoff roster.

#3 is a tie between Joe Kelly’s April 16, 2014 start in which Kelly was injured and Alex Reyes’s starting debut from four days ago. Reyes was hardly flawless—his four walks issued were certainly a red flag—but at two hits allowed and while still pitching a shutout (a run inherited by Zach Duke would later score), particularly with several of the team’s highest-leverage relievers having pitched the night before, it seemed likely that Mike Matheny would leave Reyes in the game for at least the additional out it would require to allow him win eligibility.

It is perhaps a bit hypocritical to criticize Matheny too harshly for having a quick hook with Alex Reyes, given that his tendency to leave starting pitchers in games too long is an oft-criticized part of his managerial style (including by me). But Alex Reyes seemingly was an exception to Matheny’s preferred application of starting pitchers.

At the same time, while there is room to disagree with Matheny’s typical five-inning tendency (though if one acknowledges the shortcomings that will result with increasingly ineffective starters remaining in games but believes that this is a necessary evil in order to preserve players over a long season, this is a fair point), it is curious that Reyes warranted a relatively quick hook while others cleared the win eligibility threshold.

It is implicit in Matheny’s use of starting pitchers that he believes wins matter. This is not even to necessarily say that Mike Matheny himself believes that wins matter, but that he believes somebody—whether it is Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, other GMs, or the players themselves—cares, and thus even if pitcher wins essentially have a placebo effect, that’s a thing worth pursuing.

And maybe it is, but why then is the confidence of Alex Reyes, or how he is perceived by others, less relevant than the confidence of a veteran pitcher, who seemingly would have less need for a confidence boost? Adam Wainwright has only missed out on a five inning start once this year, during his two inning disaster on August 12 against the Chicago Cubs. On May 12, against the Angels, Wainwright allowed seven earned runs and still made it through five innings.

Had Alex Reyes remained in the game on Saturday and retired just one more batter and then been removed after five innings, in line for the win, it would have been fairly uncontroversial. Again: four walks, 89 pitches (before the hypothetical third out of the 5th inning)—Reyes was hardly great. But the very next day, Jaime Garcia allowed five earned runs, including two home runs, in the first three innings, and was left in for four more (scoreless) innings. Reyes is young, so handling him with kid gloves is sensible, but just the night before, fellow rookie Luke Weaver threw 95 pitches in six innings.

In the end, Saturday was probably a step in the right direction (at least for those of us who favor shorter outings for starting pitchers the majority of the time, so as to leave them unexposed to the general decline in efficiency the third or fourth time through the batting order). The optimal solution is not for Mike Matheny to let Alex Reyes or whomever else automatically go five innings to preserve a quest for an archaic, ultimately worthless stat, but rather to disregard the stat altogether.

After all, there is no inherent value in the win. Nor is there any inherent value in ERA, FIP, strikeouts, walks, or hits allowed for that matter—they are simply units of measurement. And if the Cardinals unreservedly and uniformly dismiss the value of the win, its value to individual players should greatly diminish, if not disappear altogether. But in what often appears to be a culture, albeit not an abnormal one in baseball as a whole, in which the win is valued at least in the dugout, the standard by which wins are pursued appears to be applied inconsistently.