On March 5, 2013, Seunghwan Oh made what might be the strangest bullpen appearance in the history of baseball. I wish I was on the mound for the conversation between Oh and his pitching coach, and that I spoke Korean. It was the final game between Pool B opponents in the World Baseball Classic’s first round. Oh’s Korean team was leading Chinese Taipei, 3-2, and the Korean team needed to win so they could finish pool play with a 2-1 record to tie Chinese Taipei. But, there was a problem — TQB or Team Quality Balance.
The WBC’s first round was a round-robin tournament and, if two teams finished with identical records, TQB would be used as the tiebreaker. The math behind TQB is simple – take the number of runs scored (RS) divided by innings played on offense (IPO) and subtract the number runs allowed (RA) divided by innings played on defense (IPD). For the Korean team to win the tiebreaker, they had to beat Chinese Taipei by, at least, five runs. Not the measly one run they currently led by.
When Oh got the unenviable call out of the pen, it was the top of the 9th. There were no outs and a runner on first. His job was to let the runner score to tie the game so the Korean team could get a chance to bat in the bottom 9th. I don’t know how Oh’s head didn’t explode. His entire professional career is built around missing bats and/or inducing weak contact for hitters that want to crush the ball. Now, he had to try to get batters to hit the ball, hard, when said batters wanted nothing more than to miss it.
Oh ended up striking out two batters and inducing a pop fly to second base. By saving the game, and helping his team win, Oh eliminated his team from the WBC tournament. It was a huge disappointment for a Korean team that had placed second during the 2009 WBC. In essence, by helping his team win the battle, Oh also helped them lose the war.
Baseball is full of paradoxes with this one being painted in terms more stark and dramatic than most. Yet, it cuts to the heart of one of the things that makes baseball so special. Baseball isn’t a game that’s good at teaching you how to win. What baseball is good at, is teaching you how to lose.
The most classic, well-worn example of this is in regards to batters. Only in baseball is succeeding three times out of ten not only good but, when sustained throughout a career, worthy of the Hall of Fame. For relief pitchers, learning to deal with a loss is described in a different way. The best relief pitchers are said to have “short memories” and can block out bad performances almost instantly. Leaving them the confidence to take to the hill the very next night, if necessary. But it might be starting pitchers that have the most complex and torturous relationship with losing.
Historically, one of the main metrics for judging a starting pitcher’s performance was to look at his Win/Loss record. Yet, a starting pitcher’s actual connection to Wins and Losses can be tenuous. There’s no denying that if a pitcher wins 20 games, he’s having a good season. There’s also no denying that plenty of pitchers either lose games or have wins wiped from their record for reasons far beyond their control. For example, a pitcher who gives up 1 ER over 8 IP and still gets credit for a loss because of his team’s anemic offense. For starting pitchers, losses can be a distortion of the truth. Luckily, when it comes to baseball, deeper truths can be found.
In 1985, John Lowe, a Philadelphia sportswriter, created the “Quality Start” stat. By decoupling a starting pitcher’s performance from the rest of the team, Lowe looked to more accurately gauge whether a starting pitcher’s outing left his team in a good position to win. While QS is far from a perfect pitching metric, Cliff Lee’s 2012 season exemplifies its value. Last season, Lee’s Win-Loss record was 6-9 but he had 21 QS. Taking into account Lee’s WAR of 4.9, sixth best in baseball, it’s clear that his 21 QS better reflects his season than his 6-9 record. To put it another way, last year, Cliff Lee was winning a lot of battles but the Phillies kept losing the war.
I bring all this up because I’ve been flooded with conflicting reactions to the Brewers’ signing of Kyle Lohse to a three-year/$33M deal. On one hand, I agree with Doug Melvin that, “we’re a better ball club today than we were yesterday.” But that’s just GM speak. Of course, a team should be better after signing a free agent at that price. Otherwise, why in the world would you sign him? This isn’t the movie Major League.
Yet, for me as well as many others, Jeff Suppan’s ghost still haunts my dreams. Even after DoU writer J.P. Breen debunked the idea that the Lohse contract was even comparable to Suppan’s, I still had a chill in my bones. Have my years as a Brewers fan taught me more than how to lose? Has it also taught me to associate losing with long-term contracts to aging pitchers, like Jeff Suppan and Randy Wolf?
It’s easy to be pessimistic about a signing like this. It hasn’t worked for the Brewers in the past so why should fans assume it’ll work now. As I mentioned to my friend who recently stopped rooting for the Yankees and switched to the Pirates, there’s a tension between small-market teams and their fans that doesn’t exist in New York, LA, or Boston. There’s the crushing fear that one bad contract can derail the train that the organization has spent years getting up to speed. That without fat stacks of cash to keep the window propped open, it doesn’t take much for it to come crashing down on our fingers, much like it did to the Twins. Or, in the case of the Lohse signing, that the loss of a first-round draft pick means the future of the organization is in jeopardy and the next Cole Hamel or Mike Trout won’t be in a Brewers uniform.
As Brewers fans, we’ve spent a lot of time learning to lose more than just ballgames. We’ve learned to lose out on top-tier talent like Prince Fielder, Zack Greinke, and CC Sabathia. And we’ve learned to lose large amounts of our payroll to veteran arms in decline. But, after all these years of losing, maybe it’s time one of these contracts comes out on our side and we learn a new way to win. Like a batter who has struck out, badly, during his first two plate appearances but makes up for it by putting a charge into one during his third at-bat. Maybe now is the time we square one up with the Lohse contract. It might not be a home run but no one is expecting it to be. What if it’s a solid double? Would that be enough for fans to consider the signing a success?
For me, a trip to the playoffs makes it all worthwhile. But, if that doesn’t happen, is it a complete loss? Or, like the QS stat, is there a greater truth buried somewhere in between? Odds are that the Lohse contract won’t be a clear “Win” for the Brewers but, it’s also fair to say, it won’t be a complete “Loss” either.
The fog of war will keep us blind to the truth for some time. What we can be sure of, right now, is that the Brewers have won a small battle and made the team better for this year. The question of whether this helps them win the war is yet to be written. That chapter starts Monday and I, for one, can’t wait to see what’s in store.