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For the Win: Why do we still long for the W?

When Matt Harvey pitches well but the Mets lose, we say his teammates have failed him. Why?

"Maybe I'd have more luck if I stopped wearing my cap on my wrist."
"Maybe I'd have more luck if I stopped wearing my cap on my wrist."
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Harvey deserved a better fate...

This thought, or some variation thereof, is expressed by fans and writers alike whenever the young ace-apparent pitches well yet does not collect a W. Many times this year, Harvey has thrown a gem but the Mets have lost thanks to their anemic offense or leaky bullpen. Wednesday's matinee shutout was just the latest occasion where, the thinking goes, the team owed him a win and could not deliver.

I find fascinating the idea that Harvey's performances entitle him to wins, because it's the kind idea that could only be expressed in baseball. It also reflects how much has changed about what we expect from pitchers, and how much hasn't.

All of the Big Four team sports hinge on one-on-one matchups in some form or another. However, only in baseball do such matchups occur sequentially as the focus of the game itself: pitcher vs. hitter. This is perhaps why baseball remains the most stat-obsessed of the sports. While accounting for bad breaks, unlucky hops, and so on, we believe that whether a baseball player succeeds or fails, he does so primarily by himself. So when you cite a player's stat, you essentially say look what he and he alone has done.

In other sports, we believe one part of a team can let down the other; for instance, that a bad defense can negate the great work of an offense, or vice versa. But only in baseball do fans believe an entire team has failed one individual member of that team.

We say this about all kinds of players. I've seen more than one fan gripe that David Wright is "wasting his prime" playing for some miserable Mets teams. But something about a pitcher being "let down" is particularly offensive to our sensibilities. If a fantastic pitching performance fails to result in a win for the pitcher responsible, we often say that it went to waste, as if the pitcher had cooked for 20 and only five guests showed up.

Since the earliest days of baseball, fans have believed that a team's fortunes rest solely on the pitcher's shoulders. I have to think that scoring itself is to blame for this. Winning and losing result from team efforts, but only the pitcher has a W or L affixed to his name in the box score. It's a simple but powerful thing. When a team's fate is reduced to one letter and attached to a person, we want it to reflect a sense of reality and fairness.

Such ideas were more relevant in the days when most pitchers finished what they started. What's most interesting to me about this notion is that we cling to it even though our idea of what constitutes a great pitching performance has changed dramatically in the last few decades. Nowadays, if a pitcher throws a shutout for 7 innings and leaves the game, most of us consider that a fantastic effort that "deserves" a win. Matt Harvey is considered a legitimate Cy Young candidate while throwing an average of not quite 7 innings per start. As for those remaining innings, we assign them to completely different pitchers, around whom we've built a completely different cult. (The ninth inning is special, you must have a closer's mentality to pitch it...)

As recently as the 1980s, a truly great pitcher would be expected to go the distance. If he didn't, he didn't really deserve anything. Because of his strikeout totals and his uniform, Harvey is often compared to Doc Gooden, but during his Cy Young year of 1985, Gooden threw 16 complete games. Harvey has pitched in the ninth inning once this year.

Baseball no longer operates like it did in the Doc Gooden era. In terms of pitchers' health, the game is probably better for this. Pitchers who max out at 7 innings pitched per game have a lot less control on whether or not they get the fabled W, and we've come to accept this. As a result, fans and baseball insiders alike now recognize that wins say virtually nothing meaningful about a pitcher's worth. Felix Hernandez won a Cy Young Award in 2010 with only 13 wins to his credit because voters embraced other means of measuring his greatness.

And yet, we still yearn for a pitcher like Harvey to be "rewarded" for his efforts with the gold star of a W. Even if we think it's a useless stat, as long it's being awarded somebody, we want that somebody to merit it. This time last year, there wasn't a single Mets fan so pitcher-win agnostic s/he wasn't excited about the prospect of R.A. Dickey getting 20 wins, and cheering him to defeat the Pirates in the last home game of the season to reach that mark, and cursing out Jon Rauch for nearly blowing it in the ninth.

Numbers have always been a fundamental part of the game, and it's hard to give any of them up, even if we don't quite believe in that number anymore. Our sense of injustice when a win goes to the "wrong guy" will persist as long as MLB continues to give credit to an individual for something that is a team effort. We would probably feel the same way about hitting if scorekeeping had a rule that awarded all runs in a game, for both sides, to a single batter on the winning team.

On the point of a team "failing" a pitcher, it is not the job of the New York Mets to win on behalf of Matt Harvey, or any other pitcher. It is their job to win games period, as a team. Their record shows they are not particularly good at doing that this season, a decent month of July notwithstanding. Matt Harvey contributes his best to that effort, and his best is considerably better than the best of many of his teammates. He is on a 25-man roster, however, so his best gets added to the whole—which, taken in aggregate, is mediocre at best.

Harvey is a joy to watch whatever decision he "earns," and W's can't enhance that joy in any meaningful way. If his teammates fail to score, they haven't failed Harvey so much as they've just flat out failed. That is annoying to the Mets fan, but that same Mets fan still gets to enjoy watching an ace in the making regardless of which antiquated letter gets appended to Harvey's name at game's end.

I believe this fully. And I also believe that next time he "loses" a 1-0 or 2-1 game, knowing this intellectually won't prevent me from screaming at his teammates for failing him. The W persists.