In baseball, 'quality start' getting bad name
As traditional baseball statistics continue to evolve into complex, math-intensive sabermetrics (and lately, “advanced metrics”), the yardstick of pitching efficiency known as the quality start remains unique in its simplicity.
It is no more complicated than three runs or fewer allowed in at least six innings by a starting pitcher. That's it. No addition, subtraction, multiplication or division, unless you want to get fancy. Nothing squared, cubed, sliced or diced. No algebra, algorithms or formulas that would drive Einstein back to school.
Like the save, invented by noted Chicago baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, the quality start sprung from the brain of another scribe, John Lowe, who was then a 26-year-old sportswriter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. That was in 1985. Today, Lowe covers baseball for the Detroit Free Press. The quality start lives on.
Although it never has become an official statistic, it caught on among parts of the media and the baseball establishment. Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully trumpeted the “quality start” during NBC's “Game of the Week” telecasts, giving it instant credibility.
Also like the save, the quality start has its critics. Many media members don't care for it. Much of the sabermetric community abhors it, although Bill James, a founding father of the movement, showed some tolerance when he wrote in 2011 that “while the quality start is still a useful statistic, it is seriously flawed.”
Lowe said the quality start is as relevant as ever.
“What other way are we going to tabulate how a starting pitcher does his job, which is to keep his team in the game until the late innings?” he said.
The pitchers themselves don't seem to like it. It's not the concept of the quality start they (and other critics) disagree with. Most quality starts exceed the minimum standard. It's the idea that three earned runs in six innings is good enough.
“I don't like it at all. It's a mediocre standard. That's all I think it is,” Pirates left-hander Jeff Locke said.
“I'm not a big fan of it,” Seattle Mariners lefty Joe Saunders said. “Every pitcher has standards for themselves. If your standard is to go out there and give up three runs in six innings every time, it's not a very good standard.”
Most of the criticism centers on the fact that — here's some real math — three runs in six innings translates into a 4.50 earned run average. This generally is not seen as something a starting pitcher would aspire to.
“I always thought a quality start was a bit of a joke because I never thought my start was quality if the ERA was four-and-a-half,” said Al Leiter, an MLB Network analyst who pitched 19 seasons for four clubs and won 162 games.
Lowe said the increased emphasis on relief pitching accentuates the quality start. Of the 30 pitchers who take the mound during a full slate of games, “if 25 gave up three earned run in six innings, their managers would be delighted,” he said.
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage said the club has redefined the quality start.
“Our quality start is seven innings and three runs,” he said. “That's quality. We're deeper into the game by one inning. We have a better chance of keeping the team in the game longer. We feel we want to raise the bar. We don't want to be the average. We want to be above the average.
“It makes our starters look for something deeper than six innings. If we can get to seven-plus (innings), into the eighth inning, that means we're saving our bullpen to where we can use them when we want to, not because we have to.”
Pirates right-hander Charlie Morton said the quality start is not specific enough, that it varies according to circumstances. For a struggling pitcher, three runs in six innings might sound pretty good, he said. But for a pitcher who has been dominant, it does not. Also, he said, it might depend on the individual game.
“I think you have to base the judgment of your outing on what you did that day with what you had,” said Morton, who is in the last stages of rehabilitation from Tommy John surgery. “Some days you go out there, and you have absolutely nothing. And then you give up three runs in six innings, and you go, ‘I don't know how I did that. How'd I do so well?'
“And there's some days you go out with your best stuff, and you give up three runs in six innings and you're just kicking yourself.”