Going into tonight’s start, Domingo German has 17 wins. Using some back-of-the-napkin calculations, that puts him three shy of 20 wins.
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Pitcher wins don’t mean much as a statistic these days. I know that. You know that. For a starting pitcher, it’s a sign that you got through at least five innings, which is important, but it doesn’t say whether you were great, or you were saved by your bullpen and offense.
German has had a combination of all three. He pitches before baseball’s best high-leverage relievers and in front of one of the game’s best offenses. He gets an average of 6.76 runs of support per game. Even though he leads Yankee starters in ERA, his 17 wins don’t scream dominance.
But the 17 wins provide a window into German’s breakout season. In 23 starts, he’s pitched at least five innings all but twice. Of those 21 starts of 5+ innings, he’s held opponents to three or fewer runs 16 times. While he’s benefitted from who’s pitched after him and the hitting behind him, he’s driving a fair amount of the success.
He may not get the opportunity to reach the plateau. With September call-ups lengthening the bullpen, the team could afford to skip one of his starts or limit his innings, precluding him from that milestone victory.
But German has been exactly what the Yankees needed. Last season, Luis Severino won 19 games, the closest to 20 for a Yankee since CC Sabathia’s 21-win, near-Cy Young 2010. German was tasked with replacing the Yankees’ ace, the man who was New York’s best pitcher for the last two seasons.
As for 20 wins on the whole, there’s plenty of reasons why there are so few pitchers reaching that round number these days. Teams run through enough pitchers that many pitchers simply don’t get enough starts. The trend towards high bullpen usage and quick hooks don’t help. That’s why Sabathia’s 250-win milestone might as well be 300 in this era. Fewer pitchers can accumulate wins or actual meaningful Hall of Fame stats if they aren’t given the innings to do so.
The Yankees know this as well as anyone with no pitcher eclipsing 14 wins from 2013-17. Those teams won more than half their games through depth and a consistently great bullpen, not from starting pitching (Masahiro Tanaka was on his way to 20 wins in 2014 before his elbow injury).
In the other dugout this weekend, another 26-year-old starter comes into this series with 17 wins: Eduardo Rodriguez. Just like German, he’s been his team’s most consistent starter, both getting deep enough into games and doing so with a baseline amount of effectiveness. You don’t need the 17 wins to tell you, but he’s been one of the few bright spots for Boston’s pitching staff.
Baseball is better over 162 games when the starting pitchers factor in the final outcome. Openers and parades of bullpen arms make perfect strategic sense, but those factors alter the action for the worse and remove one of the chief drivers of narrative, the starter who wins or loses the game for his team.
I don’t pine for the days where pitcher wins were the be-all and end-all. We now know all the ways a pitcher can and cannot affect the outcomes of games, and we’re better for it. Twenty wins, without context, doesn’t tell you much. Still, it would be a cool achievement for German, considering what his season has meant to the Yankees and with so few 20-win seasons on the horizon.