The end of the Quality Start?

On June 21st last year Max Scherzer was bidding to achieve a third career no-hitter as the game against the Miami Marlins entered the bottom of the eighth with the visiting Nationals winning 1-0. Scherzer held the Marlins to just one baserunner until with one out in the eighth A.J Ellis hit a one-hopper over the glove to reach base and break up his no-no.

Scherzer then got the second out before first baseman Adam Lind fluffed a routine catch from the shortstop to allow JT Realmuto to reach first on an error and advanced the runner to second. A Hit By Pitch, a Wild Pitch and a Giancarlo Stanton single to left gave the Marlins two unearned runs which would be enough to win the game, against the odds, with just two hits. It was the fourth time in franchise history that the Marlins had won a game with two hits or fewer.

In eight innings Scherzer struck out 11 while giving up 2 hits and a walk, for an ERA of 0, and was charged with the loss, taking his record for the year to 8-5.

The same night in New York, Yankees pitcher Jordan Montgomery left the game in the sixth inning after giving up a two earned runs, including a homer; five hits and two walks against the Angels. Montgomery was credited with the win. It is for exactly this kind of imprecision, nay injustice, that sportswriter John Lowe developed the Quality Start statistic in 1985.

A Quality Start is defined as a game in which the pitcher completes at least six innings and permits no more than three earned runs. There is a sound argument to dismissing counting stats for pitchers as too simplistic and lacking real depth, and there are plenty of other, more instructive and complex sabermetric statistics around which are easily accessible on FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. There is, however, a broad and historical appetite for counting stats to rank pitchers by, and to that end, the Quality Start is refreshingly simple and represents a quick and easy data point to measure the effectiveness of a starting pitcher’s performance. For fantasy baseball enthusiasts it also more closely resembles a pitcher’s real-life value whilst providing a counting stat that slots nicely into 5×5 roto in place of pitcher wins.

Who, for example, was the better pitcher last season – Michael Fulmer, who went 10-12 for the Tigers, or Dallas Keuchel, who had a 15-4 record for the Astros? What if you were told that 72% of Fulmer’s starts were Quality Starts, while Keuchel only managed 64%. Or if you were told that Fulmer’s teammates chipped in with fewer runs in support than Keuchel’s, indeed on eight occasions they backed him with just two or fewer runs?

Michael Fulmer
Michael Fulmer, elite quality? (photo Keith Allison)

There are two recent trends that have reduced the overall number of Quality Starts, and perhaps in doing so have made the Quality Start a more relevant measure of pitcher value. Since a high watermark in of 2014, numbers of Quality Starts have fallen by 20%, and last year there were the fewest Quality Starts recorded since the dawn of the 30 team era in 1998.

chart (2)

The first thing factor is the burgeoning run-scoring environment. It is simply harder to limit teams to three runs scored when run-scoring is going through the roof. Be it a fly-ball revolution or a juiced ball, a blip or a fluke, there is no denying that more runs are being scored and against that backdrop, pitchers are significantly less likely than they were even a few years ago to pitch Quality Starts.

The second is the reduction of pitch counts in favour of increasing relief pitcher usage. CHanges to roster construction now see most teams favouring deeper bullpens. Increased velocity and more caution surrounding pitcher health have led to starting pitchers being much less likely to be given the chance to go three or more times through a lineup.Combined with the re-emergence of the elite middle relief and fireman roles, these factors add up to starting pitchers going fewer innings per outing on average, and a subsequent knock-on effect on Quality Start numbers.

chart (3)

So as the Quality Start becomes increasingly less common, so it becomes increasingly valuable. The pitcher capable of leaving his bullpen with a maximum of nine outs remaining whilst giving up three or fewer runs is far from a dying breed but is a rarer commodity than just a few seasons ago. As the number of ‘workhorse’ pitchers decreases sharply, the guy who can ‘eat’ innings separates himself from the pack.

Were we to accept the Quality Start as a better counting stat with which to rank pitchers, then we would still see usual suspects in the upper echelons of the pitching class. But hot on the heels of Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Chris Sale would be the less star-studded names of Jeff Samardzija, Gerrit Cole, Julio Teheran and Marcus Stroman. I expect Quality Start numbers across the league to continue to tumble in 2018, and in turn, I also expect the gap between the top level and the middle of the pack to widen even further, leading to a change in the way pitching talent is evaluated.

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