Do we have to worry about vultures?

The following guest post was written by Brendan Bingham

With Felix Hernandez having won the AL Cy Young Award and Bert Blyleven’s recent election to the Hall of Fame, it seems that wins and losses have fallen out of favor as the primary measures of a pitcher’s success.  However, we remain a long way from ignoring these stats altogether.

Vulture is a term applied to a relief pitcher who collects victories, often not so much through his own pitching prowess, but opportunistically, thanks to the timely late-inning hitting of teammates.  There is an air of deprecation in the use of this term.  In one scenario, the relief pitcher enters the game with his team losing.  This vulture is in a relatively invulnerable position.  If he pitches poorly, perhaps his ERA suffers, but he cannot be charged with the loss.  But if his team scores enough runs to take the lead, he stands to be credited with the win, sometimes after only a short and unspectacular time on the mound.  In a second – perhaps more sinister – scenario, the relief pitcher enters the game with the lead, but fails to hold it.  At least this vulture is at risk of taking the loss.  However, with his team’s rallying to retake the lead, he “earns” the victory, an unsavory accomplishment worthy of its being named for the large carrion-eating bird.

How common are vulture wins?

With the expansion and increasing specialization of relief pitching, we’re hearing more and more about vultures.  Modern day 25-player rosters are typically composed of no less than 11 pitchers, more often 12, sometimes 13.  In contrast, having 10 pitchers on the roster was the norm in the 60s and 70s.  The 4-man starting rotation has become a thing of the past.  Starters are pitching fewer innings and very few complete games.  Relief pitching has been broken down into three or four distinct sub-disciplines, and relievers as a group are pitching more innings.

The table below shows the number of wins collected by starters and relievers since 2000.  Please note that “% Starter Wins” is not a traditional winning percentage.  For the purpose of this analysis, losses and losing pitchers are ignored.  For each game played, we’re simply asking – was the winning pitcher a starter or a reliever

Year Starter Wins Relief Wins % Starter Wins
2000 1680 748 69.19
2001 1716 712 70.68
2002 1703 722 70.23
2003 1730 699 71.22
2004 1657 771 68.25
2005 1741 689 71.65
2006 1723 706 70.93
2007 1682 749 69.19
2008 1682 746 69.28
2009 1706 724 70.21
2010 1736 694 71.44

These percentages are remarkable in their lack of variation.  With only minor year-to-year changes, the win in about 70% of MLB games in the past decade was credited to the winning team’s starting pitcher.

It is reasonable to expect that the frequency of vulture wins has increased over time, given the transformation that has taken place in the bullpen, or at least that was my expectation going into this analysis.  However, a quick survey of every tenth year from 1920 to 1990 shows evidence of change, but not where I had expected it.  Indeed, wins by relief pitchers were once less common, but you have to go back to 1950 to see a noteworthy departure from the 70/30 split of recent years.  Before looking at these numbers, I had expected the percentage of wins by starters to have been higher in 1960, if not also in 1970.  Bear in mind that I am not including all years from these earlier decades; rather I am trusting that one year in ten is representative of the decade, always a dangerous assumption.

Year Starter Wins Relief Wins % Starter Wins
1920 1062 166 86.48
1930 990 242 80.36
1940 958 270 78.01
1950 965 265 78.46
1960 856 376 69.48
1970 1386 557 71.33
1980 1533 568 72.97
1990 1509 596 71.69

Traditionally, pitchers were expected to finish what they started.  Relief pitchers were often called upon only when the game was out of reach.  That’s an admittedly simple-minded view of relief pitching, but perhaps close enough to accurate for the 20s, 30s and 40s.  While it is only in the past two decades that our recognition of relievers’ contributions has included election to Cooperstown, it was during the 1950s that some well-known relievers emerged.  Two examples are Clem Lebine, who had double-digit relief wins for the ’55 and ’56 Brooklyn Dodgers, and Elroy Face, who performed the same feat for the ’59 and ’60 Pirates.

How important are vulture wins to team success?

We need look no further than the past season to see that vulture victories are sometimes key to team success, but more often not.

2010 National League
Team Total Wins Starter Wins Relief Wins % Starter Wins
PHI 97 70 27 72.16
SF 92 61 31 66.30
ATL 91 59 32 64.84
CIN 91 57 34 62.64
SD 90 66 24 73.33
STL 86 68 18 79.07
COL 83 58 25 69.88
FLA 80 63 17 78.75
LAD 80 55 25 68.75
NYM 79 53 26 67.09
MIL 77 52 25 67.53
HOU 76 52 24 68.42
CHC 75 60 15 80.00
WAS 69 42 27 60.87
ARI 65 49 16 75.38
PIT 57 34 23 59.65
2010 American League
Team Total Wins Starter Wins Relief Wins % Starter Wins
TB 96 73 23 76.04
NYY 95 72 23 75.79
MIN 94 73 21 77.66
TEX 90 58 32 64.44
BOS 89 70 19 78.65
CHW 88 64 24 72.73
TOR 85 63 22 74.12
DET 81 53 28 65.43
OAK 81 64 17 79.01
LAA 80 62 18 77.50
CLE 69 51 18 73.91
KC 67 46 21 68.66
BAL 66 42 24 63.64
SEA 61 46 15 75.41

In the NL, Cincinnati’s league-leading relief wins were important to their making the post-season.  Based on starting pitcher wins, St Louis would have won the Central division.  The Giants also beat out the Padres due in part to their posting more relief victories.  Meanwhile, the Phillies, who finished the season with the most total wins, had 27 wins by relief pitchers, a good but not outstanding total.  Many teams, including the division-trailing Washington Nationals, posted vulture win totals similar to Philadelphia’s.

In the AL, the Texas Rangers benefited from posting a league-leading 32 relief wins.  They would have finished third in their division based on starter wins alone.  However, the other three post-season teams put up unspectacular numbers of vulture wins.  Moreover, the Baltimore Orioles, with the second-worst record in the league, had more relief wins than the division-leading Tampa Bay Rays or the wildcard Yankees.

In general, the number of wins by starters is a better predictor of team success than wins by relief pitcher.  Poor teams and good teams often have similar numbers of relief pitcher wins.

Bottom Line

Although modern-day relief pitching has become very specialized, its primary purpose is to preserve starting pitchers’ wins, not to generate wins from the bullpen.  Closers are the most highly respected (and best paid) relievers, and the key stat by which they are judged is saves, not wins.  Wins from the bullpen are great, but they’re unpredictable, and when a team generates lots of them, the accomplishment speaks more to the team’s clutch hitting than its pitching.  If you had to summarize the Texas Rangers’ pennant-winning season with one phrase, I suspect you would more likely choose “timely late-inning hitting” than “dominant relief pitching.”

Post Script

It was my interest in the distribution of starter and relief pitcher wins that prompted my prediction about Denny McLain (see Graham’s Jan 27th post).  On the reasoning that 1) the percentage of wins by starters doesn’t change much between eras and 2) in any era, there is only one winning pitcher per ballgame, I asserted that McLain’s 30-win season should survive his being transported to another era, provided he winds up on a winning team and is given the opportunity to pitch as much as he did in 1968.  Sound reasoning, or so I thought, but stat converter says otherwise.  1968 remains a special year for pitchers, particularly Denny McLain.

This guest post was written by Brendan Bingham. Email him at Brendan@calibertherapeutics.com

0 thoughts on “Do we have to worry about vultures?”

  1. Graham, you reminded me of the original “Vulture”, greaseball specialist Phil Regan, a closer for the Dodgers and Cucs in the late 60’s – early 70’s.

    As a Cub fan then I can say when he was good he was very, very good. When he was bad he was horrid.

    1. Hi Joe, glad you liked the post and welcome to site, but Brendan Bingham is the person who reminded you of Regan. Brendan wrote this guest post and has done a couple other fine articles here, too. Those guest posts are linked to where I list his name at the beginning and end of the post.

  2. Joe,
    I had forgotten about Regan and his nickname; thanks for the reminder. He and side-armer Ted Abernathy were a fearsome pair out of the Cubs bullpen in ’69.

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