How Much Quality Is in a Quality Start?

On Wednesday night’s ESPN broadcast of the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Colorado Rockies, play-by-play announcer Jon “Boog” Sciambi and his partner, former Rookie of the Year and Cy Young Award winner Rick Sutcliffe, were discussing the fact that pitchers throw harder now than they did in years past. Sciambi asked Sutcliffe if he thinks part of the difference is because pitchers throw a higher percentage of their pitches at maximum effort than they used to.

Sutcliffe’s answer was interesting, partly because it only actually related to the question if the listener paid close attention and made the correct inferences. But it was also interesting on its own. Sutcliffe set off on a rant against the quality start statistic. (The inference that the listener needed to make, of course, was that because pitchers get a gold star for throwing a six-inning “quality start,” there is no need to hold anything in reserve for the late innings so they can give maximum effort on every pitch.)

Sutcliffe’s QS tangent sounded much like every rant you have ever heard about that particular stat. “Six innings and three earned runs — that’s a 4.50 ERA! There’s nothing quality about that!” He even pulled in a quote from a conversation he once had with Nolan Ryan about quality starts. “Six innings and three runs?” Ryan supposedly said. “I’d call that a poor performance.”

The quality start can definitely be a misleading stat, and its value diminishes the less context you have. In the American League this year, the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals have the two best team ERAs at 3.42 and 3.43, respectively, but they are 11th and 15th in quality starts. Meanwhile, the teams with the two worst ERAs — the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox — are seventh and fourth in quality starts. The National League, on the other hand, has much more logical results. The four worst team ERAs — the Rockies, Milwaukees Brewers, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Cincinnati Reds — are also the bottom four in quality starts. The only real outlier in the NL is the San Diego Padres, who lead the league in quality starts but are right in the middle of the pack in ERA.

Sutcliffe’s rant made me curious about just how valuable a quality start is. So I did some research. But before we jump into that, I want to point out two things that were very obvious to me without even opening the laptop:

1) The least common denominator of six innings and three runs does not make up a very large percentage of quality starts; most of the time a pitcher will pitch more innings and/or allow fewer runs.

2) Asking a Hall of Fame pitcher like Nolan Ryan how he feels about the quality start is a bit misleading. Of course you want better than the bare minimum quality start with a 4.50 ERA from the ace of your staff, from the guy who threw seven career no-hitters and 222 career complete games. If Nolan Ryan gave you a full season of the bare minimum quality starts, yes, that would be a poor performance from him. But we’re not talking about a full season, and we’re not necessarily talking about the staff aces. If your number-five starter can get you through six innings and keep you in the ballgame with only three runs allowed, I think you have to be pretty happy about that.

So let’s get to some of the numbers I pulled. I’ll spoil it for you a little bit and tell you that I didn’t reach some grand understanding of the world and I am not ready to declare the quality start a good or bad statistic. But I did find some interesting numbers.

2015 MLB Quality Starts

Quality Starts: 803
Team Record: 551-252
Winning Pct.: .686
Pitcher ERA: 1.83
Bare Minimum: 58

So far this season, after the games on Wednesday, June 3, there have been 803 quality starts in the Majors Leagues. In those games, the team whose pitcher had the quality start has a record of 551-252, a .686 winning percentage that would equal about 111 wins in a 162-game season. The pitchers themselves are 438-136 in those games, an even better .763 winning percentage (or 124 wins in a season).

More interestingly, in those quality starts, the pitchers are averaging about 6.8 innings with a 1.83 ERA. Of the 803 quality starts, there have been 267 instances of the pitcher throwing exactly six innings and 134 games of allowing exactly three earned runs, but only 58 “bare minimum” games of both exactly six innings and exactly three earned runs. In those 58 games, the teams are 32-26, a .551 winning percentage that equals about an 89-win season.

What about Rick Sutcliffe and Nolan Ryan? Well, Sutcliffe had 208 quality starts in his 18-year career, but just 13 of the bare minimum variety. In his 13 BMQS, he went 7-5 with one no-decision in a game his team won. Overall in his 208 QS, he averaged 7.73 innings pitched and had a 1.94 ERA. Oh, and his teams were 158-50 in those games. Considering Sutcliffe’s 4.08 career ERA, one could definitely make a strong case that perhaps Sutcliffe’s teams would have been better off had he thrown quality starts more than 53 percent of the time.

Quality StartsTeam RecordWinning Pct.Pitcher ERABare Minimum
Nolan Ryan481331-150.6881.6118
Rick Sutcliffe209158-50.7601.9513

Ryan was better. (I know, I swore that I didn’t reach any groundbreaking discoveries, and then I drop the bomb on you that Nolan Ryan was better than Rick Sutcliffe.) He pitched 481 quality starts in his 27 seasons, with just 18 BMQS. In those 18 games, his teams were just 5-13, and he personally was 3-11. But looking at the entire group of 481 QS, Ryan’s teams went 331-150, and he averaged 7.91 innings with a 1.61 ERA. Ryan actually had as many QS of more than nine innings as he had BMQS.

It’s also worth noting that Ryan pitched in the postseason in only five of his 27 seasons, so he wasn’t playing for great teams most of his career. The fact that his lackluster teams had a .688 winning percentage when he threw a quality start — which he did 62 percent of the time throughout his career — is pretty impressive.

So we’ve discovered a couple things today. For starters, we now know that teams win very often when their starting pitcher throws a quality start, and the average quality start has an ERA straight out of a Clayton Kershaw Cy Young season. We also know that only seven percent of quality starts are the bare minimum type that critics love to talk about.

Should the quality start be redefined? Well, when you consider that even bare minimum quality starts give teams a .551 winning percentage, it’s hard to be too down on it. Even if you bump the innings requirement up to seven innings, that’s still a worst-case ERA of 3.86. Keeping the innings at six but lowering the allowable runs to two puts you right at a 3.00 ERA, but you are still leaving three innings to the bullpen.

As I mentioned before, a quality start is much more meaningful for a bottom-rotation guy than for an ace. No pitcher will go into negotiations for a nine-figure contract and start listing his QS stats. But a guy looking to catch on with a team as a number-four or -five starter might earn himself a fair amount of money if he has impressive QS percentages to show off.

Do starting pitchers throw fewer innings today than in decades past? Undeniably so. Is that because the quality start has convinced them that six innings is all that is expected? I don’t think so. I think the QS is a classic case of a stat that reflects a new reality, not one that creates it.

One Response

  1. Al-Kendall

    Presuming the bullpen comes through, you get a good team game when a pitcher has a QS! This makes more sense now than looking at a 4.50 ERA, which is likely above the league average.


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