No baseball statistic has been more debunked, devalued, mocked, kicked around and generally dissed in recent years than the pitcher’s win. “It’s out of a pitcher’s control!” critics cry in justifiable lament, citing the influence of offense, defense and bullpen performance on the outcome. Even if it were a worthy stat at one time, they’ll observe, pitchers average so many fewer innings a start these days that the win statistic has become passé. Piling up wins was for men who pitched in ancient times when the world was all black-and-white and sepia: Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Cy Young—guys like that.
When the Mariners’ Felix Hernandez famously earned the 2010 American League Cy Young Award with a grand total of 13 wins, it was the fewest ever for a Cy Young winner and about a half season’s work for your father’s aces, guys like Steve Carlton and Warren Spahn.
Yet for all the disregard of the W around the windowless workstations and wobbly water coolers of Wonkland, pitchers themselves—as the Braves’ Shelby Miller, now at 24 straight winless starts and counting might tell you—still do like to see wins in the record next to their name. “Of course I would like to get one,” says Pirates pitching prospect Billy Roth. “I would like to get one very much.”
Roth, you see, has just completed his third professional season, and he has never, ever, ever—in 32 appearances and in 29 starts—been credited with a win. He is 20 years old and he spent last season in short-season A ball, playing for Bristol in the Pirates chain, and no, he is not related to Anthony Young (who while pitching for the Mets made 27 starts without a win from 1992 to '94 and lost 27 consecutive decisions from '92 to '93).
Roth’s career record now stands at 0–12. Wow. Zero wins over the first 29 starts of a pro career? Is that, like, a record or something? “No way to know for sure, records like that haven’t really been kept,” says Bob Hoie, a minor-league baseball historian at Total Baseball. “I can’t believe that this has ever happened before, though. I mean, it's happening now and I still can’t believe it's happening.”
Hoie knows his minor-league material, and after getting wind of the Billy Roth phenomenon, he dug around and came up with a player by the name of Deryk Hooker. A few years ago, while pitching in the Cardinals system, Hooker made 76 appearances over two seasons without getting a win. Seventy-six! Now that’s a dry spell worthy of Andy Stitzer. But Hooker was a middle reliever, not a starter, so he wouldn't be expected to get a lot of wins. Hooker had also already collected more than a dozen pro wins when his fallow period began. This Roth zero-for-forever thing, though? “That’ll blow your mind!” says Hoie.
Roth is a long, lanky righthander (6’3", 184 pounds) who was drafted by the Pirates in the 16th round in 2013. He chose to sign with them rather than pitch at the University of Arizona, where he had committed. Pittsburgh gave Roth a $190,000 bonus, and he says that he believes “the Pirates have the best organization in baseball for developing young pitchers.”
The thing is, Roth has not done all that badly. Over the last year he has added a nice changeup to his fastball and curve, and this season he wound up with a 3.98 ERA, allowing 53 hits in 54 1/3 innings to go with 42 strikeouts and 23 walks. These are not quite King Felix numbers, but they aren’t Charlie Brown numbers either. For a kid of Roth’s age, who is developing pitches in competition as he goes, the numbers are decent.
As Tim Hayes—the Bristol Pirates beat writer for the local paper, the Herald-Courier—puts it, Roth "is a nice guy and he’s always optimistic, although he has certainly had some bad luck.”
In his very first start of 2015, Roth gave up just four hits and, according to Bristol manager Edgar Varela’s breakdown, “did a hell of job.” Still, Roth took the loss.
On July 21, against the Danville Braves, Roth allowed one run in seven innings and left with a 2–1 lead. But then Danville tied the game off a reliever with one out in the ninth, drawing groans from the Bristol crowd and expletives from Roth's teammates. “The guys all know about my not having a win,” he says. “They kind of stay away from me at times like that when I leave a game with a lead. It’s kind of like if I had a no-hitter going. Only we’re not exactly talking about a no-hitter.”
On Aug. 30, in his last start of this season, Roth seemed destined to experience the joy of victory, leaving the game after seven innings with a 4–1 lead. In came righty Jess Amedee, who all season had been the very best part of the Pirates' bullpen. But before you could say "Billy Roth is now a winner," Amedee gave up three runs and the lead. “After the game he came by my locker and kind of said, ‘Sorry, man,’” Roth recalls.
It’s not as if Roth doesn’t know what a win feels like. As a junior at Vista (Calif.) High, he had a 0.92 ERA and went 9–1, a record that, however irrelevant the Win may be, still looks awfully handsome in the box score.
“We joke that Billy will be a guy who goes on to be a 20-game winner in the majors,” Hayes says. “Travis Fryman didn’t play too well in Bristol (.234, two homers in 67 games) and Jose Lima didn’t pitch too well in Bristol (3–8, 5.02 ERA), but they both became All-Stars in the Show.”
Roth is not looking that far ahead. He will play in the Instructional League this month, and then he will return home to Vista. He plans to work out a lot this off-season, get a haircut and go to the beach. And, naturally, he will think about next summer and what might yet be. Roth knows Pirates player development folks don’t emphasize random things like wins, and he knows that in Wonkland, the W is all but worthless. For young Billy Roth though, a W, any W, would be wonderful.