Two explanations for why even avowedly anti-stats people tend to like Game Score, a Bill James stat from the 80s that counts up box score components and assigns a number to each start.
It’s now going on 30 years old, and today’s avowedly anti-stat people were 30 years younger when they first heard about it.
Game Score is built around quantifying the things we already watch for, rather than revealing the things we don't.
Bill James turns these stats out by the dozen—Hall of Fame Monitor is another. They’re not about the question of assigning value so much as they are tools to answer the smaller-bore baseball-fan questions that are often swamped by that one. “Starting Pitcher Rankings” is one of his new ones, an answer to this specific question: “Who is the best pitcher in baseball right now?”
Which is distinct from “Who will be the best pitcher from this moment forward?” or “Who was the best pitcher last year?”—t’s got much more in common with the individual rankings in tennis and golf. Without getting too far into the weeds, James uses an adjusted version of Game Score, discounted over time to produce this effect:
At 3%, 28% of the pitcher’s rating is based on what he has done in the last two months, 49% based on the last four months, 63% based on the last full season. That’s about the right ratio. MOST of the evaluation of a pitcher—over half—has to be based on what he has done in the last year.
The rankings, as of April 12, feel good to me:
- Clayton Kershaw
- Felix Hernandez
- Max Scherzer
- David Price
- Madison Bumgarner
- Johnny Cueto
- Chris Sale
- Cole Hamels
- Jon Lester
- Zack Greinke
- Adam Wainwright
Clayton Kershaw then a gap, Felix Hernandez then a gap, and then a clutch of veteran aces and young stars tangled up behind: that’s a pretty good result for a descriptive stat.
The Cardinals’ rotation tracks well, too. Adam Wainwright began last year at No. 7 and climbed as high as No. 4 at the All-Star Break. John Lackey, who got as high as No. 9 in the Johan Santana era, has been all over the place, which makes him a good case study:
|Year||4/1||7/1||Opening Day #1|
Now he’s No. 34. Michael Wacha is ranked 115, between stars on their way down (Tim Lincecum is just outside the Top 100) and workhorses on their way out (Justin Masterson, Colby Lewis, Edwin Jackson.) Players move fast that far down—he gained four spots after his first start.
But today the story—the thing this descriptive, just-for-fun stat is telling us that we may not have noticed ourselves—is that Lance Lynn is the No. 17 starter in baseball.
He’s gotten to where he is—just ahead of Jeff Samardzija and Jered Weaver, just behind Stephen Strasburg and James Shields—without any heroics. He wasn’t a top pick like Weaver or Strasburg, he wasn’t the centerpiece of a deadline deal like Samardzija; he’s stayed healthy and pitched well for three solid years, and the Starting Pitcher Rankings illustrate, among other things, how few pitchers are doing that at any given time.
So what does this mean? Set aside the huge fluctuations in ERA—his FIP has held between 3.28 and 3.49 this whole time—and Lance Lynn is hard to get excited about for precisely the reasons that he’s moved into the Top 20. The time to get excited about Lance Lynn was five years ago, when reports out of Memphis suggested, more or less out of nowhere, that he’d decided to stop being a guy with an 89-mph sinker and start being a guy with a 95-mph fastball. Since then he’s been about the pitcher we hoped he might be when those rumors got out.
But five years is a long time to be one pitcher, especially to be one good pitcher. Any occasion to recognize that is worth a moment.
On Opening Day 2012 Tim Lincecum, three years older than Lynn, ranked ninth in baseball. CC Sabathia was seventh. Ricky Romero was 14th, Ian Kennedy 15th, Yovani Gallardo 17th, Matt Garza 19th. In 2013 Matt Harrison was 27th and rising, and Trevor Cahill, 24 years old, was at 35. In 2011, Lynn’s rookie year, the climbers were John Danks, Jonathan Sanchez, Chad Billingsley.
They get hurt, they lose effectiveness, they bounce around, they founder with bad teams, they retire. Everyone starts his career not ranked and ends it, if he’s lucky, like Josh Beckett (No. 151) on a controlled descent through the ranks and out of sight.
For now, Lance Lynn keeps pitching.