Tanner Houck deserves a win for his 5 perfect innings – and here’s a way to give it to him

There was no way Tanner Houck was ever going to complete the game he started for the Boston Red Sox on Saturday. He’d been moved to their bullpen a couple of weeks before, and was no longer stretched out enough to throw a complete game. People had their expectations set at 3 innings, when thinking about how many innings he’d complete. So to get 5 perfect innings was huge.

A nice bonus for Houck was that by completing 5 innings with the lead, he was qualified to be awarded the win. All the Red Sox’ relief pitchers had to do was maintain that lead through the rest of the game.

But they didn’t. They allowed the game to become tied, which took Houck out of the running for the win. The win went to Austin Davis, only because he was lucky enough to have been the last Red Sox pitcher to have thrown a pitch, at the time his team broke the tie and built a 4-run lead in the 9th inning. His results, 2 runs allowed over ⅔ of an inning, were the worst of any of the six Red Sox pitchers in the game; for this he was awarded the win.

Seems wrong, doesn’t it?

There is a way to fix this. There is a way of awarding wins that gives it to the right pitcher. I call it the merit method of awarding wins. I explain the method in my post The how and the why of awarding wins to pitchers by the merit method.

Using that method, we take the 5 runs that the Red Sox scored in Saturday’s game and divide by 9 to get the average number of runs they scored each inning (5/9, or 0.56). We then credit each Red Sox pitcher with this number of runs for every inning they pitched. We see this in the first three columns in the table below, IP, RCr/IP, and RCr, which stand for Innings Pitched, Runs Credited per inning pitched, and Runs Credited, respectively. You get the third column (Runs Credited) by multiplying together the first two.

PitcherIPRCr/IPRCrRRAResult
T. Houck50.562.7802.78
G. Richards 10.560.5600.56Hold
R. Brasier 10.560.5600.56Hold
A. Ottavino 0.560.191-0.81Hold
A. Davis 0.560.372-1.63Win
H. Robles 10.560.5600.56Save
Runs Ahead (RA) calculations for Red Sox pitchers in victory over Washington Nationals, October 2, 2021

Then you subtract runs allowed (R) from this to get each pitcher’s number of Runs Ahead (RA) for that game. Because Tanner Houck had the highest number of Runs Ahead for the winning team, he would be awarded the win by the merit method. Instead, he was the only one of the six Red Sox pitchers that night who wasn’t awarded anything. Some thanks for being perfect.

The how and the why of awarding wins to pitchers by the merit method

The merit method of awarding wins is one I first publicly proposed in 2018 to fix all the flaws in the way wins are currently awarded in baseball. Some of those flaws are severe. I spell out some of these flaws in my original post, “Fixing how wins are awarded in baseball“.

The method focuses on the number of runs scored by each team, just like the current one does, but awards a winner based on which pitcher did the most to help his team win that game. The current method awards it rather randomly to whoever happened to be the pitcher at the time his team took its last lead of the game. This often awards the win to the least deserving pitcher, and can reward relief pitchers for pitching worse. The merit method does away with those problems, and a host of other problems with the current method.

To explain how it is calculated, and the reason for calculating it that way, a little background helps. There are a ton of pitching statistics in baseball, but for a pitcher, only two matter in determining the outcome of a game: outs recorded, which he wants to maximize, and runs allowed, which he wants to minimize. A merit-based method of awarding wins would do best to incorporate these two numbers, and just these two numbers.

After all, allowing 1 run over 7 innings is a better contribution than allowing 1 run over 1 inning, just like allowing 1 run over 1 inning is a better contribution than allowing 7 runs over 1 inning.

But what if one pitcher allows 3 runs over 7 innings, and another allows 1 run over 1 inning? Which of these pitchers does more to help his team win? We need a way to be able to attach a value to innings pitched, that allows us to compare it to runs allowed, and come up with a single number that determines how much that pitcher did to help his team win.

The merit method does this by crediting the pitcher with a number of runs per inning pitched, adding these up over all the innings pitched, and then subtracting from this the number of runs that pitcher allowed. The resulting number of runs is called that pitcher’s “Runs Ahead”. The win is awarded to the pitcher on the winning team with the greatest number of Runs Ahead for that game. (Likewise, we can award the loss to the pitcher on the losing team with the lowest number of Runs Ahead for that game.)

As for the number of runs per inning to credit that pitcher with in the first part of that calculation? That’s just the average number of runs his own team scored per inning played in that same game.

One nice thing about calculating things in this way is that the winner always has a positive number for Runs Ahead, and the loser always has a negative number of Runs Ahead.

Let’s see how this works in a game from August 23, 2021, when the Boston Red Sox were visiting the Texas Rangers. (This was the first in a string of 6 consecutive starts by Nathan Eovaldi that were no-decisions for him, but were wins for the team. I write about that streak in Nathan Eovaldi’s 6-game no-decision streak would be a 6-game win streak if wins were awarded in this way.)

In that game, the Red Sox scored 8 runs over 10 innings, for a run credit per inning of 8 / 10 = 0.8. In the table below, this rate is used to convert Innings Pitched (IP) into a number of credited runs, for each player who pitched for the Red Sox in that game. From this run credit, we then subtract the number of runs that pitcher allowed, to get that pitcher’s Runs Ahead for that game.

PitcherInnings pitched (IP)Run credit per IPRuns credited (RCr)Runs allowed (R)Runs ahead (RA)Result
Nathan Eovaldi70.87 ✕ 0.8 = 5.6 15.6 – 1 = 4.6No dec (ND)
Adam Ottavino10.81 ✕ 0.8 = 0.800.8 – 0 = 0.8Hold (H)
Matt Barnes0.8⅓ ✕ 0.8 = 0.2720.27 – 2 = -1.73Blown save (BS)
Garrett Whitlock2 ⅔0.82 ⅔ ✕ 0.8 = 2.1312.13 – 1 = 1.13Win (W)

As you can see, the merit method of awarding wins gives the win to Nathan Eovaldi by a wide margin, although the official win went to a reliever who pitched well, but didn’t do quite as much as Eovaldi to help the team win.

Tiebreakers

It does sometimes happen that two pitchers on the winning team end up tied for most Runs Ahead. In these cases, a tiebreaker is required to decide which pitcher gets the win. In 2012, 9.1% of merit win calculations resulted in a tie, requiring a tiebreaker, and 2.6% of merit loss decisions required a tiebreaker.

The tiebreaking procedure is certainly something I’d like to hear some good debate about.

The following is the tiebreaking procedure as I initially imagined it.

  • First tiebreaker: repeat the Runs Ahead calculation using earned runs in place of runs
  • Second tiebreaker: most innings pitched (reversing this to fewest in the case of evaluating for losses)
  • Third tiebreaker: fewest (most) batters faced
  • Fourth tiebreaker: fewest (most) baserunners allowed (by hit, walk, or hit by pitch)
  • Fifth tiebreaker: fewest (most) total bases allowed
  • Sixth tiebreaker: the last pitcher to pitch.