Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Vulture Wins

Have you ever watched a pitcher throw seven or eight stellar innings before turning the game over to a reliever that coughs up the lead? How about that reliever's team coming back to win the game in their next time at bat? This, of course, would lead to the ineffective reliever picking up the win and the starter's brilliant outing being consigned to the dustbin of no-decisions.

As recent commenter bopperland informed me, there's a term that's started to make its way around baseball circles to describe this sort of win by relief pitchers: vulture win. I believe the term comes from the notion a reliever has swooped in and clutched the win from the rest of his team's pitchers. There are a few places online that talk about vulture wins:
  • Wikipedia: "If the pitcher surrenders the lead at any point, he cannot get a save, but he may be credited as the winning pitcher if his team comes back to win (a so-called vulture win)."
  • Everything2.com: "In baseball, a loose term for a relief pitcher getting credited with a Win that he doesn't seem to deserve...the thing about the Vulture Win is that the pitcher basically lucked into it. It's even worse if he gives up a ton of runs but gets the win anyway -- this happens a lot to closers who blow their save opportunities."
  • ESPN: "Vulture wins are a function of opportunity, both in being the pitcher of record when a team takes the lead and of the team's ability to take that lead. While there's an element of luck involved -- being in the right place at the right time -- there's also an element dependent on having enough talent to merit a manager's faith to take the mound in potential vulture situations."
So, vulture wins are generally considered undeserved, but there's no hard definition of what constitutes one.

For example, what if a starter throws six scoreless innings, leaves with the score tied at zero, and a reliever comes in for the final three innings and gets the win in a 1-0 game? What if a starter gives up six runs in five innings and still leaves with the lead before his team's bullpen throws four scoreless innings? Should the starter get credited with a vulture win as the least effective pitcher his team put on the mound that night? What if a reliever comes in with the bases loaded and two outs in a tied game, records the out, and his team wins in the next half-inning? That may have been the biggest moment of the game, so maybe that guy deserves the win after all. What if a reliever comes in an 11-11 game, throws an inning, and his team goes on to win? If no pitcher has been particularly effective in a game, is any pitcher really deserving of a win?

There are a lot of murky situations to muddle through when it comes to vulture wins, but I think it's possible to formulate a general definition. So, here is my definition of a vulture win. Feel free to give feedback if I've overlooked something or I'm way off.
A pitcher is credited with a vulture win if he is the winning pitcher and satisfies one or more of the following conditions:
  1. He enters a game in relief and pitches at most one inning.
  2. He enters a game in relief and gives up at least as many runs (earned or unearned) as complete innings pitched (i.e. 1 R in 1 2/3 IP, 2 R in 2 1/3 IP).
  3. He enters a game in a save situation and blows the save.
This describes almost all relief wins, but let me explain my thinking. The reason I limit condition one to at most one inning is to avoid saddling relievers who go multiple innings keeping the other team within range of a comeback with a vulture win. It's subjective, but I feel as though relievers who go multiple innings have done enough to deserve their win. That said, I feel condition two covers guys who don't pitch particularly effectively in a multiple-inning outing. A pitcher giving up two runs in two innings before his team comes back for him doesn't really deserve the win in my mind (kind of like the old "pitches effectively" phrase in the three-inning save rule). The final condition deals primarily with closers and/or setup men who fail in their only job: nailing down the game. Even if they go multiple innings after the blown save, any win is still stolen from the pitcher the game would've been saved for. Thus, the save blower's win is a vulture win. As I said, if I've missed something obvious or am otherwise in error, let me know.

So, now that I've defined a vulture win, who actually gets them regularly? So far in 2008, twenty-eight pitchers have three or more vulture wins by my definition.

Most Vulture Wins in MLB, 2008
(through 7/22)

Tom Gordon, PHI, 5
Kevin Gregg, FLA, 5

Heath Bell, SDP, 4
Francisco Cordero, CIN, 4
Joel Hanrahan, WSN, 4
Todd Jones, DET, 4
Jon Rauch, WSN, 4
Rudy Seanez, PHI, 4
Scot Shields, LAA, 4
Salomon Torres, MIL, 4
Jamey Wright, TEX, 4

Joe Beimel, LAD, 3
Joaquin Benoit, TEX, 3
Jesse Crain, MIN, 3
Bobby Howry, CHC, 3
Jonathan Papelbon, BOS, 3
J.C. Romero, PHI, 3
Adam Russell, CHW, 3
Duaner Sanchez, NYM, 3
George Sherrill, BAL, 3
Brian Shouse, MIL, 3
Jorge Sosa, NYM, 3
Matt Thornton, CHW, 3
Mike Timlin, BOS, 3
Jose Valverde, HOU, 3
Tyler Walker, SFG, 3
Wesley Wright, HOU, 3
Tyler Yates, PIT, 3

Of the pitchers with four or more vulture wins, Gregg, Cordero, Jones, Rauch, and Torres have spent time as a closer for their team. Also among the four-plus vulture win guys, Gregg, Bell, Hanrahan, Torres, and Wright have at least one relief win that wasn't a vulture win.

While putting the list of individuals together, I couldn't help but notice some teams seemed to have a lot of vulture winners. I thought it might be informative to put together a list of the top vulture winning teams.

Most Team Vulture Wins in MLB, 2008
(through 7/22)

Philadelphia Phillies, 19
Washington Nationals, 14
Boston Red Sox, 13
Florida Marlins, 13
Pittsburgh Pirates, 13
Texas Rangers, 13
Chicago White Sox, 12
Cincinnati Reds, 12
Detroit Tigers, 12
Houston Astros, 12
Milwaukee Brewers, 12
Chicago Cubs, 11
St. Louis Cardinals, 11
Los Angeles Dodgers, 10
Minnesota Twins, 10
New York Mets, 10
Baltimore Orioles, 9
San Diego Padres, 9
Colorado Rockies, 8
San Francisco Giants, 8
Arizona Diamondbacks, 7
Atlanta Braves, 7
Kansas City Royals, 7
Los Angeles Angels, 7
Oakland Athletics, 7
Tampa Bay Rays, 7
New York Yankees, 6
Toronto Blue Jays, 6
Seattle Mariners, 5
Cleveland Indians, 3

Twenty-eight pitchers alone have as many vulture wins as the Indians do. Kind of strange so many American League teams are on the bottom of the list (8 of the last 10). I wonder if that's a common thing. Tomorrow I'm planning on looking at career vulture wins by my definition to see who is the king vulture, so I'll look at teams and leagues from year to year as well.


Bopperland said...

Great research! I am definitely not surprised to see a team like my Blue Jays near the bottom of the 2008 vulture win standings. When you have someone like Halliday leading MLB in complete games, plus the division K leader in Burnett (for now), opportunities for VW are reduced.

Notice that there is somewhat of a correlation between low VW and overall W-L performance.

In general, though, the operative words for describing VWs are "undeserved" and "opportunistic". The classic VW is when a reliever comes in during the top of the 9th of a tied game. He throws one pitch for the 3rd out, and then get a win when the home team generates the winning run in the bottom of the 9th.

I really think there has to be a different category for pitchers who blow a lead or save, and then get the win when their team pulls it out for the hapless reliever. Maybe something like "Blown Win" would apply.

VWs even have a parallel in the workplace. You spend a lot of time generating a sale, and then the account rep swoops in with the paperwork to get the credit.

Theron Schultz said...

I understand the argument for separating blown save wins (BS wins?) off from the rest of vulture wins. If you do that, then Tom Gordon, Todd Jones (even though he's been a closer this year), Rudy Seanez, and Scot Shields are the only pitchers with four or more vulture wins. Salomon Torres, Jamey Wright, Joaquin Benoit, Bobby Howry, Jonathan Papelbon, George Sherrill, Matt Thornton, and Jose Valverde move off the 3+ VW list. Philly still leads with 19 vulture wins nabbed by its pitchers.

Jamey Wright surprisingly is atop the BS Win category with 3. Kevin Gregg, Jon Rauch, Salomon Torres, Joaquin Benoit, Jose Valverde, and Matt Capps have 2. Texas has the most team blown save wins by its pitchers with 6, while Milwaukee and St. Louis are tied for the NL lead with four.