I have to think that if baseball were invented today, the “quality start” would not exist. The quality start – defined as 6 or more innings pitched while giving up 3 or fewer runs – is one of those institutions that seems like it started out with the best intentions, but never really got all the way there.

When the quality start was first being dreamed up, I think the conversation went a little like this:

Person 1: Let’s come up with a way to track how well a starting pitcher performed each game.

Person 2: That’s a great idea, but we already have ERA, wins and losses, strikeouts, walks…

Person 1: yes, but those are all old stats. We need something new. Some starts are good and some starts are bad, so let’s call the good ones, “quality start”….

Person 2: Isn’t that just called a win?

Person 1: Well, sometimes a pitcher throws well but doesn’t get the win…

Person 2: Isn’t that why we have ERA?

Person 1: Yes, but we need something easier. All those numbers. And numbers people don’t even like ERA all that much anymore. Let’s say that anytime a pitcher throws six or more innings and gives up three or fewer runs is a quality start.

Person 2: Setting aside that we could just call that an ERA of 4.50, what happens if a pitcher gives up, say 4 runs, but pitches all nine innings? That’s a lower ERA and has a higher chance of the team winning the game.

Person 1: That can’t be a quality start because they gave up more than 3 runs.

Person 2: OK…but what about the pitcher that is throwing a shutout but leaves the game after five innings?

Person 1: Not a quality start. Gotta cross the six inning mark

Person 2: Why six innings?

Person 1: Because that’s a quality start.

Person 2: OK. I have another idea: do you want to join a fantasy baseball league? Buy-in is about $500 per year, but you’re an ideas person, and I think you would do just great…

This is about the furthest I’ve made it in a column this year without mentioning some numbers, so we have to fix that. In an article exploring quality starts, David Gassko asked the question: how much does the quality start stat help us understand about a pitcher’s performance from year to year? After controlling for ERA, the answer is indistinguishable from zero.

The quality start doesn’t really tell us much, but much like when Henry Chadwick first labeled the walk an error, I think the quality start has had a negative effect on the way we think about baseball games. The quality start tells us those pitchers who consistently give up three or fewer runs over six innings are good and that those who give up more are not doing a “quality” job. Consistency has to be a good thing, right?

Well, not really. And there’s no shortage of evidence on this, either.

How can pitching inconsistency be a good thing? It is because not all runs matter the same. Matt Hunter demonstrates that a team’s chance to win does not decline at a steady rate with more runs surrendered. Due to this, pitching a great game (0-2 runs) is much more valuable than pitching a clunker (5+ runs) is harmful.

His data set utilizes every game played since 1993 (20 years of data at the time of writing). The results are pretty amazing:  even if a pitcher gives up five runs through seven innings, his team will still win about 35% of the time.

So, just for an illustration, let’s take two players, one is our super-human consistent starter (nine innings pitched, four runs every single time) and the other had two types of outcomes: a gem (2 runs, 9 innings) or a clunker (6 runs 9 innings). Let’s say both start 30 games.

[This is obviously an oversimplification, but the results are the same even if you use the more accurate equation: (RA+4.88)/9*(9-IP) for both pitchers. This would just assume that the bullpen is constant for both]

So, which pitcher’s performance results in more games win? It turns out that the inconsistent pitcher will win about a half game more over the course of a season than the consistent pitcher. How is this possible? Its because the chance of winning against a team that scores 0-2 runs is very high, but if that team scores 5 or more runs, you still have a shot at winning (in that article, Sal Baxamusa drops this number: teams win 18% of games where they give up 10 or more runs. That is kind of mind-blowing).

This all points to once conclusion: Truly valuable pitching is the kind that can shut down the opposing team, even if a pitcher occasionally gets rocked for five or six runs. The other big take away is that even great pitchers throw terrible games.

Take a look back at the 2006 HBT article and scroll down to the frequency distributions. Those are the number of expected runs per game for the three leading contenders for the 2006 NL Cy Young Award. The charts are generated based on the number of runs given up by the pitcher and then assuming a 4.88 ERA (league average bullpen) for the remainder of the game.

Brandon Webb, who would go on to win the award, gave up 6 expected runs five times, seven expected runs twice, eight once, and nine expected runs twice. Webb’s ability to keep his team ahead in the game two thirds of the time is what made him one of the best in the league. Yet, if a pitcher gets about 30 starts per season, that means that the Cy Young winner left his team with a less than 50-50 chance to win the game about a third of the time.

This means the old saying “great pitching beats great hitting” is backwards, but still true: its so hard to have great pitching, that when it does happen, you usually win. And perhaps that why if you keep your team a notch above the 50% mark to win the game for six innings, we might want to give you something. Not something normal or expected, because keeping a ballgame above the 50% mark is something that very few pitchers can do.

Perhaps we could call it a quality start.


14 Responses

  1. Kurt Frost

    I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

  2. Dale Pearl

    Jack morris 1992 era over 4 and yet he had 21 wins it only makes sense if you look at the innings pitched in 92 he had 246 ip.

  3. charlottencredsfan

    I think the agents that represent pitchers really, really love it. I doubt ownership does. It is a means of making the mediocre look acceptable. Now 2 runs over 6, you might have something but 3 over 6 is insulting. Praying that this goes the way of the Game Winning Hit stat.

  4. ci3j

    This was a great article, and something I was discussing earlier.

    Here’s something I noticed:

    In this article (http://www.hardballtimes.com/consistency-is-key/) it says that if your team scores 3 runs, you can only be expected to win 33% of the time. So, by extension, if you can consistently hold the opposing team to 3 runs, should you be expected to win 67% of the time?

    I think this was part of the catalyst for the invention of the “quality start”, because once you give up 4 runs, the game very nearly becomes a toss-up, which is to be expected since the average offense scores about 4.3 runs a game.

    Like Mike said, I think the quality start stat was created with good intentions, but sort of like the weird rule of how relievers can vulture wins based on situations (giving up the lead and having your offense regain it for you), I think it sort of got sidetracked.

  5. preacherj

    “It is a means of making the mediocre look acceptable.”

    This sums up my feelings regarding it quite well. I might look at it for a fill-in guy like Francis, because someone like that shouldn’t pitch enough innings for many stats to be meaningful, therefore if he pitches the definition of a qs, I’m satisfied. The rest of his totals are inconsequential as he doesn’t fit into any future plans. They are also interesting to look at if someone pitches a lot of them, especially close together, as to it speaks to durability to a certain extent. There is certainly something to be said about keeping your team in the game, but the old schooler in me just isn’t happy with my top of the rotation guys using that stat to justify anything.

  6. Ellis Henry

    Votto headed to the DL. Getting MRI on left knee. I’m sad.

    • preacherj

      Just saw that from Rosenthal. It explains a lot of things including his slump, and why Soto is still around. Looks like we will see a lot of Neftali on the corner. Can Pena or Mes play first? I certainly would rather see this option investigated.

      • Ellis Henry

        Pena has 4 career games at 1B. 3 in 2012 for the Royals and one last year for the Tigers. I doubt Mesoraco has any experience at any level playing 1B.

    • Dale Pearl

      About time they came out about it. I just knew that something was wrong. Dang he must have hung in there long enough for Mesoraco to come back.

    • Vicferrari

      How bad can it be, he played all innings of the DH while many regulars got the night off? If Pena can remotely play first and Mes is back- gotta bite the bullet and move Soto down, DFA someone off the 40 (Bernadina again?), let Barnhart be the back-up and get someone who might hit above .250 with some potential to hit HR’s at the rate of Hamilton, possible Gotay since he is in the organization- and I know he is not that much

  7. lwblogger2

    I also think that with the Quality Start, the scoring environment isn’t taken into account. Scoring is down across baseball right now, so 6 innings and 3 runs isn’t so good. If scoring jumps up again for some reason then perhaps 3 runs over 6 innings will start to look pretty good again. I’ve never been a fan of the stat other than as a measure of how often a pitcher is keeping his team in the game through the first 6 innings.

  8. lwblogger2

    Big, nasty blow about Votto. I hope he doesn’t end up having knee injuries like mine where it just doesn’t ever get sorted out.