“Quality Start” Needs Redefining

Tracking quality starts has been commonplace in evaluating pitchers since John Lowe introduced the term in 1985. A starting pitcher earns a quality start when he pitches six or more innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs. However, one must question whether three earned runs allowed per start is representative of a quality pitcher. Many factors contribute to whether or not a pitcher puts forth a quality outing, and innings pitched plus earned runs allowed is just a small portion of the equation.

“Quality Start” Needs Redefining

Definition of Quality

Merriam-Webster defines quality as “a degree of excellence; superiority in kind.” Using this definition, a quality start is in fact not a quality performance. A pitcher who posts a quality start for every start will eventually end up with an ERA of 4.50. Most baseball fans will quickly identify that a 4.50 ERA is not good, but here are the numbers to back that up.

According to Fangraphs, of the 73 qualified starting pitchers in 2016, 55 posted an ERA lower than 4.50. This means that about 75%, an overwhelming majority, of the qualified pitchers last season posted an ERA better than what a quality start average would produce. A 4.50 ERA cannot be considered quality if such a large number of pitchers achieved that mark. Anything that becomes commonplace, or average, cannot be considered quality. By contrast, the top 25% of pitchers posted an ERA equal to or less than 3.21. A 3.20 ERA spread over 180 innings would equal 64 earned runs. 64 runs divided by 30 starts comes out to a little over two runs per game, so it would be more accurate to say a quality start is six innings pitched and two or fewer earned runs allowed.

Obviously, there are some issues with this equation. Not all qualified pitchers reach 180 innings pitched, and not all pitchers will make it through six innings on a consistent basis. Baseball Reference even points out that a quality start simply means one that “allows (the) team a much better than even chance to win the game.” The formal definition of quality may be considered irrelevant here; however, this equation still provides a solid base for discussing what makes a pitcher “quality.”

League Average

It is necessary to establish a baseline for further evaluating pitchers. After all, it is well-proven that runs have bee allowed at differing rates across the different eras of baseball. The 1.56 ERA Greg Maddux posted in 1994 looks much different from the 1.77 ERA that Clayton Kershaw posted in 2014. Both are remarkably impressive numbers, but both need perspective in order for their full scope to be understood.

The best way to bring perspective, or to provide a baseline, is to examine what the league-wide ERA is in a given season. The league average performance must be established in order to determine what makes a quality performance. The 73 qualified starting pitchers in 2016 allowed a total of 5,911 earned runs in 13,793.2 innings pitched, which produces a 3.86 ERA. It becomes easier and easier to see how a quality start, which produces a 4.50 ERA, is not truly quality. In reality, a “quality start” was a below average performance for a starting pitcher in 2016. This does not mean that the term “quality start” is never appropriate. The league-wide ERA in 2000 was 4.77. A 4.50 ERA would have been above-average, and a “quality start” would have been a true picture of quality pitching.

The Quality Start is not a Quality Stat

The bottom line is that the quality start statistic is outdated. It is too black-and-white to be used in conjunction with other, constantly fluctuating stats. Bill JamesGame Score stat is good in some areas, but falls short in others. The examination of quality starts is a good reminder that there is no perfect stat, no single measure of a baseball player’s performance. A number of different statistics are needed to gauge a performance, and a quality start is not always a quality performance.

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