MASTER NOTES: Woulda, coulda, shoulda

Regular Master Notes readers/listeners will know well how I feel about the wins category in fantasy. If you’re new to Master Notes, or a regular reader/listener with the memory skills of a neon tetra, let me summarize: As a category, wins stink. They’re capricious, random events that don’t measure baseball player skill nor fantasy owner acumen.

Other than that, they’re great!

But like Mark Twain said about the weather, everybody complains about wins, but nobody does anything about it. So let’s correct that a little bit.

Since wins are primarily luck-based, I thought it might be worthwhile to check and see how many pitchers might have suffered from some bad luck, pitching well enough in games this season that they “shoulda” won, but in which they didn't actually get the wins. The idea is that maybe they will start pitching with better luck, and might therefore be in line for some luck regression—and a few more “W”s.

The first trick was to set the expectation of what should be a win for a starting pitcher. I made up a spreadsheet with every MLB start this season through Tuesday’s games, and checked out the average performance in wins. It turns out that starters won about 72% of their games in which they had at least 6.1 innings, with 1.0 baserunners per inning or fewer, 0.95 K/inning or more, and no more than 1 HR. That seemed like a reasonable definition of a “shoulda.”

(I know a shoulda could be more granular, and indeed I checked out every inning count over 5.0 against every BR/IP count and every K/IP count, which turned out to be a lot of work with not much benefit. Also, if you were wondering why Earned Runs aren’t in the calculation, I figured that they are often out of the pitcher’s control—runs scoring because of unfortunate sequencing, for instance, or because relievers allowed bequeathed runs to cross the plate.)

Step Two was to find out which pitchers were meeting those shoulda thresholds often. To nobody’s surprise, the elite pitchers were, well, the elite pitchers. Among pitchers with 10+ starts, the highest percentages of starts meeting the “shoulda” criteria were Jose Berrios (42% of starts); Chris Sale (40%); Corey Kluber, Luis Severino, Max Scherzer, Carlos Carrasco, Charlie Morton and Stephen Strasburg (33% each); Justin Verlander and Jacob deGrom (31% each); and  Aaron Nola, Trevor Bauer and Shohei Ohtani (29% each). And keep in mind that in many or even most cases, these aces missed a shoulda by narrowly missing just one of the target thresholds.

Now, we’d expect that any pitcher will lose the occasional shoulda start despite good performance. But seven pitchers have lost at least two shouldas apiece. These are the pitchers who could be in line for a few extra wins as the season progresses—converting a more appropriate percentage of their shouldas and maybe even lucking into a few less-deserved wins to offset the ones they didn’t get earlier.

The parade of the unlucky is led by NYM ace Jacob deGrom, who has gone winless in five of his six shouldas. His April 23 start against ATL illustrates the two ways a shoulda becomes a didn’t. deGrom pitched brilliantly. He threw 7 IP, with 6 BR and 10 Ks. As mentioned, I didn’t count runs allowed, but the matter was moot since he didn’t allow any. After striking out the side in the seventh around a Dansby Swanson single, deGrom left the game having thrown 86 pitches, 67 for strikes.

It was the kind of game that is a pleasure to watch. And unfortunately, the Mets hitters were watching it, while not hitting. They were as unproductive through seven against Julio Teheran as the ATL hitters had been through seven against deGrom, scoring no runs and putting just six runners aboard.

That’s way number one not to get a win: have your team’s hitters take the evening off.

Remarkably, in the top of the eighth, the Mets batters, apparently realizing deGrom’s show was over when he was pinch-hit for, finally got busy and dusted off their bats. Well, sort of—they loaded the bases on a walk, a bunt single, and an error on a nubber to third. After a pitching change, Yoenis Cespedes flew out to short right, too short to score the runner. But then Asdrubal Cabrera and Jay Bruce singled back-to-back to plate three—and put deGrom in line for the win.

Needless to say, this is where way number two to not get a shoulda comes in: relievers blow the lead. The Mets brought in AJ Ramos, who sandwiched two walks around a K. The Mets brought in Jerry Blevins to put out the fire, but as a fireman, he would have been more comfortable in Fahrenheit 451 than in Field of Dreams. He gave up a ringing double to Freddie Freeman, scoring the two runners, and threatening deGrom’s shoulda.

The coûp de grace to the shoulda came in the bottom of the ninth, when Mets closer Jeurys Familia came in and promptly gave up a walk and a run-scoring triple, tying the game, and a couple of batters later, giving up a bunt hit to score the runner from third. Ballgame. What shoulda been a deGrom win...wasn’t.

The other starters with two or more shouldas are:

BOS ace LHP Chris Sale and HOUR HP Gerrit Cole, each of whom has six shouldas with four that didn’t pan out into wins.

And Trevor Bauer (RHP, CLE), Dylan Bundy (RHP, BAL), Justin Verlander (RHP, HOU) and Kyle Gibson (RHP, MIN), each of whom has two shouldas that didn’t get wins (although each of them did convert some shouldas into wins).

Of this bunch of unfortunates, the chances are nobody is going to give you a discount on deGrom, Sale, Cole, Bauer or Verlander based on their bad luck in shouldas. If you can persuade them to sell based on that factor, you should be in real estate. But if you’re chasing rainbows in the wins category, keep Bundy (3.81/1.19, 10.0 K/9) and Gibson (3.27/1.17, 8.8) in mind.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.