Baseball has long realized that this stat doesn't tell you much. Not football, though.
I put up a Twitter poll the other day. I asked my (relatively small) following this question:
Who has more influence on the outcome of a game?
A. Starting Pitcher
B. Starting Quarterback
Starting pitcher came back as the winner, by a small margin. I put this poll up for a very specific purpose, for there is something that reallyyyy pisses me off about football analysts, and football analysis in general, that I just need to get off of my chest.
Why, oh why, are we still fixating on quarterback win-loss records in 2020?
Let’s break it down. In baseball, even the most casual fan has already moved past judging pitchers by their W-L record. There are just so many other things that go into winning a baseball game that are beyond a pitcher’s control, yet the W-L record gives two pitchers a flat, all-encompassing win or loss after the game, as if they just won a tennis match. You can go 10-9 with a 1.7 ERA and a 1.98 FIP and end up 10-9, like Jacob deGrom did in 2018. You can also go 18-4 with a 4.03 ERA and a 4.72 FIP, like Domingo Germán did in 2019. Which pitcher was better? WHICH PITCHER WAS BETTER, READER?!
deGrom. It’s not close.
This should make perfect sense to someone that understands baseball, even on a basic level. Thankfully, the baseball community, as a whole, now looks deeper to judge how effective a pitcher is, particularly a starting pitcher. Why can’t football?
Why, football? Why can’t you catch up?
Who's More Important?
Like I said, I don’t have that big of a Twitter following, so there is quite some room for variance in my poll results. But it is probably safe to say that starting pitchers and starting quarterbacks affect the outcome of a game on similar levels.
A starting pitcher has to complete five innings in order to qualify for a win. That’s a minimum of 15 of the 27 outs in a 9-inning game that the starter must produce. He must also be winning when he exits the game, and his team must never lose that lead. If the game is tied, or there is a lead change after he exits, he is given a no-decision. If his team is losing and never ties or takes the lead after he exits, he is dealt a loss.
A lot goes into earning a win or loss as a starting pitcher, which is why a guy with notoriously bad luck like Jacob deGrom has started 171 MLB games and has received only 115 decisions, for a 66-49 record.
Now I ask this question. What does a starting quarterback have to do in order to get a win?
Start the game. Oh, and his team has to win. That’s it. A quarterback can get knocked out of the game on the very first play and get a victory. His team just has to win. A quarterback can throw five picks in the first half, Nathan Peterman-style, get pulled, have his team come back as he rides the bench, and get a victory. His team just has to win. A quarterback can throw eight total passes for a grand total of 77 yards, like Jimmy G did in the NFC Championship Game, and get a victory. His team just has to win.
At least starting pitchers have to do something useful to earn a dub. Quarterbacks have to put on their uniforms and run onto the field for the first play.
But I get it, examples like Jimmy G getting a win for his NFC title game performance are outliers, not the norm (although Ryan Tannehill was undefeated in this past playoffs when he threw for less than 100 yards, for what it’s worth). The average NFL team runs about 60-70 plays on offense per game. Around 35 of those are passing plays, so roughly half, sometimes a little more. Quarterbacks are also involved on certain running plays, both as a rusher and as a play-caller, so throw in another 10 or so plays that they have a hand in.
So, we have starting pitchers, with an average of 5.4 innings pitched in 2019 (just over 16 outs) versus starting quarterbacks, who are involved in about 45 of 65 plays per game. That’s 59% of the defensive outs for pitchers and 69% of the offensive plays for a QB, give or take. A pitcher is a little more influential in the National League, where he'll probably get 2-3 plate appearances per start. Plus, the average is around six innings per start when pitchers receive a decision, which would be 66% of the outs.
Now we have to consider how involved they are with those plays. Pitchers are far more predominant with their outs, for several of them will usually come in the form of a strikeout, which requires no defense behind them. Football is the ultimate team game, as they say, meaning the QB is relying on an offensive line and skill players all doing their parts in order for any play to work. Pitchers do it themselves more often than QBs do, so you could make an excellent case that the 59% figure is more valuable than a QB’s 69% involvement.
Either way, we’re splitting hairs here. There are several good points for either side of this argument, but I think we can all agree that it is pretty close. All the more reason to stop judging QBs based off of their stupid W-L record, which might be even less useful because of its lack of criteria.
Let's Be Better
Please football fans, I implore you to stop looking to this stat. There are an innumerable amount of things that go into winning a football game. Having an effective field general is certainly one of them, but the mother effing W-L record, no matter how simple and attractive it may seem, is not a good way to judge them. Tom Brady is 6-1 in the playoffs when he throws for zero touchdowns for Chrissakes. Jimmy Garoppolo is 21-5 as a starter, 23-6 if you include the playoffs. Dak Prescott went 8-8 this year with 33 combined touchdowns, over 5000 total yards, and a 71.2 QBR. There are so many better ways to judge QB-play (QBR, TD%, INT%, TD:INT, etc.). Enough with the win-loss nonsense.
Instead, why don’t we judge players based on what they can control? Baseball has long since abandoned wins and losses when analyzing pitchers. I think it is time to do the same with quarterbacks.
Players don’t win games. Teams win games.