Baseball Questions: What is a Quality Start?
By Loot, MLB Handicapper, Lootmeister.com
This is a term that has evoked debate from people in baseball for years. The term “quality start” (QS) is intended to paint a picture of success for pitchers. The idea is that a pitcher’s level of success, often determined by whether he wins or loses is dependent on things that aren’t in the pitcher’s control, namely his team’s defense or run production. A quality start focuses on earned runs allowed by the pitcher.
The minimum requirements for a quality start is that a starting pitcher throws 6 complete innings, while allowing 3 or fewer earned runs. The main criticism of this statistic is that a pitcher who allows 3 earned runs in 6 full innings has an ERA of 4.50 for that game--not exactly great. Depending on the era, a 4.50 ERA is iffy to varying degrees. During times in the game where the offensive output is high, a 4.50 ERA is OK at best. During other less offensive eras in the game, it’s downright sketchy to have an ERA that high.
At the same time, those are only the minimum requirements for a so-called quality start. Of all the different times a pitcher registers a quality start, the percentage of a pitcher throwing exactly 6 innings while allowing precisely 3 runs is actually quite small. Nevertheless, there is a lot of backlash to this statistic, with some of the reasons making a lot of sense.
It’s not a perfect statistic and a lot of individual examples can illustrate that. Looking at individual cases, though, doesn’t paint an accurate picture. When taking all quality starts over time, the ERA is very much lower than 4.50. Still, there are cases that pop up that make this stat seem limited.
A pitcher who throws 6 innings and allows 3 runs will be credited with a quality start. But if a pitcher throws a complete game for 9 innings and gives up 4 runs, he will not be credited with quality start, even though his ERA of 4.00 would be half a run better than the guy who threw 6 innings and gave up 3 runs. In the 70’s, Gaylord Perry threw 15 innings and gave up 4 runs and that does not register as a quality start, though a winning argument can easily be made that he out-pitched a guy who threw only 6 innings and allowed 3 runs.
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Those are isolated incidents that might show the term “quality start” to be an absurd statistic. Then you have all the old timers saying if they met the minimum requirements for a quality start every time they pitched in their heyday, they wouldn’t have made it two years in the big leagues. That might not be totally fair.
At the end of the day, the pitchers who lead the league in quality starts or who have the highest percentage of quality starts in relation to the total number of games they started have in fact been excellent pitchers. You’re not going to see a pitcher with a 4.50 ERA near the league leaders in quality starts, even if that’s the minimum ERA needed to have a quality start.
In the top ten all-time for percentage of lifetime quality starts are the names of some of the best pitchers ever--guys like Tom Seaver, Bob Gibson, and Randy Johnson. In a single season in 1985, Dwight Gooden once had 33 quality starts in his 35 starts. Bob Gibson was 32 out of 34 in 1968. And no one would say either of those guys were anything but utterly dominant during those seasons.
In baseball, some stats are just going to evoke a lot of debate. Most of the stats fall into a category where totals are strictly added up, removing the element of debate. Determining quality starts is more of an interpretive stat, subject to human judgment rather than sheer numbers. A shutout, strikeout, or base-on-balls is cut and dry. Then you have stats like wins, saves, and quality starts that are a bit more controversial, being that they are measured against a set of standards that may have limitations and fail to capture the essence of what is intended.