Baseball is the one sport where winning and losing are actual statistics recorded for players, not just the team or the coach. No other sport assigns wins and losses to a single individual, but in baseball pitching, the wins and losses statistics are what determines a player’s next contract, how successful they will be, and most importantly, how they will be remembered.
With all that pressure, earning wins is the key for pitchers to become great. But how does a pitcher get a win? We explain below.
- To earn a win as a pitcher, you must be the pitcher of record when your team takes the lead for good.
- Starting pitchers must pitch at least five full innings to earn a win.
- Relief pitchers have a harder time earning wins because they do not stay in the game long enough. The key to earning an official win is to be the pitcher in the lineup the moment your team takes the lead, but then they can never relinquish that lead.
- There is a clause in MLB rules that allows for relief pitchers whose performance may be deemed brief and ineffective to still earn a win.
- Most coaches will tell starting pitchers that the first batter in every inning should be an out. Another strategy for pitchers to try is focusing on control and accuracy rather than velocity.
Pitching at least five innings
Determining if a pitcher receives a win seems straightforward, and for most cases, it is, but there are exceptions. According to MLB rules, a pitcher receives a win when he is the pitcher of record, and his team takes the lead for good.
One rule that stands out is for starting pitchers. When a pitcher starts the game, they must pitch at least five full innings to earn a win, which means they need to collect 15 outs from the other team before being awarded a win.
If a starting pitcher leaves the game before the conclusion of the 5th inning with the lead and his team wins the game, the official scorer for the game must choose the most effective relief pitcher to receive the win. It may seem strange that one person has that kind of decision-making power, but these rules have been in effect for decades and have not caused controversy.
However, relief pitchers have a harder time earning wins because they do not stay in the game long enough. The key to earning an official win is to be the pitcher in the lineup the moment your team takes the lead, but then they can never relinquish that lead. With the score of games often flip-flopping, it is possible that middle relief pitchers may throw 100 or more innings in a season and never earn a win or a loss.
So, why did MLB create the 5-inning rule for starting pitchers? First, before 1950, most pitchers did throw a full nine innings, not to mention wins and losses were not official statistics. In fact, the first mention of having to throw at least five full innings was not introduced into the official MLB rulebook until 1950.
This means Ray Scarborough of the Washington Senators was the first pitcher in MLB history to be awarded an official statistical win. While people can look back at pitchers who played before 1950 and count wins and losses by today’s standards, those numbers are unofficial but usually not disputed.
Before that, awarding wins and losses to pitchers who left games early was a debated topic dating back to 1872. That season, Boston Red Stockings pitcher Al Spalding was the starting pitcher in a regular-season game against the Brooklyn Eckfords.
In that game, Spalding was pulled in the 4th inning when his team had a 17-0 lead, and he had a no-hitter in progress. Boston ended up winning the game 20-0, but no one credited Spalding as the winning pitcher that day. It was not an actual statistic, but it got baseball fans and the media talking at the time.
The “brief and ineffective” clause
Like with most rules, there are always exceptions. In the MLB rulebook, there is a clause in the wins and losses section that discusses awarding wins to relief pitchers whose performance may be deemed brief and ineffective. The name suggests that even though a pitcher may be the statistical leader on record when their team takes the lead for good, if they did nothing to help, then the official scorer of the game can exercise the “brief and ineffective” clause.
For a relief pitcher to have a brief and ineffective outing, the following usually happens: A relief pitcher comes in during the middle of the game, and their team has the lead. If the relief pitcher plays poorly and gives the lead back to the other team, yet their team comes back to take the lead and win the game the next inning before that pitcher is substituted, then the brief and ineffective clause comes into play.
When this scenario happens (or something similar), it is the sole responsibility of the game’s official scorer to determine who the winning pitcher should be. In most cases, the win is awarded to the closing pitcher, but it can go to another reliever if they perform well.
Strategies for earning a win as a pitcher
For a pitcher to earn a win, several strategies can be employed. Most coaches will tell starting pitchers that the first batter in every inning should be an out. Having one out and no one on base is a significant advantage in baseball strategy for a pitcher because it allows them the freedom to try aggressive strategies.
Because hitters today are so good, getting the first hitter out in every single inning is nearly impossible. So, another strategy for pitchers to be effective over several innings is to work on control and accuracy. There are a few pitchers who can consistently throw over 95 mph over 6–8 innings, but that is rare. Most high-velocity power pitchers only throw 4-6 innings now.
By focusing on control and pitch placement, power hitters can be neutralized by pitching around the strike zone, and contact hitters can be controlled by keeping the ball low, which encourages them to hit more ground balls.
In the video below, you will hear former player and MLB analyst Billy Ripken talk about pitching strategy and how pitchers can use command and control of their pitches to win more games.
When history books talk about pitching, it is always about who threw the hardest or won the most. The importance of pitchers earning wins makes the difference between them having an All-Star career or a short stint in the minor leagues.
While outside factors can have some influence, pitchers must focus on making good pitches and getting those first 15 outs. If not, the decision of who gets the win goes to the official scorer, and a pitcher may not get the decision they want.
In the video below, you will hear from the official scorer of the Cincinnati Reds, who has held that job for 43 major league seasons. The pressure and the decisions they make matter to the careers of many players, and it is a responsibility they do not take lightly.
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