Kill the Quality Start?

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“Kill the win” entered the baseball lexicon years ago. It originally referred to the disproportionate attention a pitcher victory got from the casual fan, and it was one of the major arguments advanced during the rise of analytics. The phrase has been adopted by fantasy owners as well, as more and more leagues ditch – or at least consider ditching – one of the game’s standard categories since its inception.

Typically, leagues that abolish the win will instead use quality starts. The rationale behind this choice is that a pitcher has more control over whether he earns a quality start, as opposed to a victory. After all, a pitcher can spin a gem and still wind up missing out on a win, or even saddled with a loss, depending on how his teammates perform at the plate. To reference an extreme example, a few years ago Cliff Lee threw 10 scoreless innings and didn’t get a decision. He damn sure got credit for a quality start, though.

The name of the stat is something of a misnomer, however. While that example and countless others were indeed high-quality performances, the criteria for a quality start is six or more innings pitched with three or fewer runs allowed. A pitcher who met those minimum requirements every time out would run a 4.50 ERA for the season. That doesn’t scream “quality,” particularly when you consider that a 4.50 ERA has been below the league average in all but 10 seasons in MLB history.

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QS? Quit! Stop!

Clearly, neither statistic is perfect. The question, then, is whether one is less imperfect than the other – a question that's becoming more interesting and difficult to answer with the way the game is evolving. As we all know, major-league teams are changing their approach to pitcher management. Starters are being pulled earlier and more frequently than at any point in the history of the game. The times through the order penalty is well-established, and shorter outings both allow for a greater percentage of max effort pitches and limit overexposure for tired starters or relievers who may not have more than one plus offering. They may also be beneficial to a pitcher’s short and long-term health.

Lightening the workload of starting pitchers has been a general trend for most of baseball’s modern era, but it has accelerated in recent years. For most of the millennium, the leaguewide QS% hovered around 50 percent. Somewhat surprisingly, its post-2000 peak came quite recently, with a 54% mark in 2014. Since then, however, the rate has plummeted to 44%. Only two teams last season had a QS% above the 2014 rate. One was the Nationals, at 61%. Not shocking given the strength of their rotation. The other was the Red Sox, at 54%. That's a bit harder to believe, just because it means somebody other than Chris Sale managed to log a quality start 64 times. Sale’s 23 quality starts tied him with Justin Verlander for the MLB lead. He won 17 games, which was one fewer than the four pitchers who tied for the top spot there.

Sale had eight games where he notched a quality start without also earning a win (0-3 with five no-decisions) and only two games where he got a win without producing a quality start. He was plenty valuable regardless, of course, but those numbers do reflect a larger picture of what one might refer to as injustice. Per the Baseball-Reference Play Index, there were 629 instances last season of a pitcher earning a quality start without a win, while only 158 times did a pitcher get credit for a victory without meeting the parameters for a quality start.

That would seem to be a strong point for using QS over wins, but of course things aren’t that simple. With fewer starters routinely getting out of the sixth inning, eliminating wins in favor of quality starts can significantly ding the value of many of them. Take Brad Peacock, for instance. He started 21 games last season, and only completed the sixth inning in nine of them. That’s how you end up with eight quality starts but 13 wins. Swingmen like Peacock are quickly becoming precious commodities in today’s game, and the old-school workhorse is a dying breed. There’s also the fact that relievers – be they multi-inning types or your more traditional one-and-dones – can earn wins as well, but not quality starts. Some, in fact, win games at similar W/IP rates as mid-tier starters. Going back to Peacock, three of his 13 victories came in one of his 13 relief appearances. The case can be made that using quality starts instead of wins limits the number of viable winning strategies in a league.

Using pitcher wins also introduces the added dimension of having to consider the quality of a pitcher’s team. The correlation isn’t perfect, though obviously pitchers on good teams are more likely to win games than those on bad teams. (That’s the kind of hard-hitting baseball analysis you’ve come to expect from the experts here at RotoBaller!) Maybe that appeals to you because wins are tougher to predict. Maybe it just annoys you, to introduce more uncertainty with another variable. But either way, it adds to the degree of difficulty.

Ultimately, like everything else with this game, it comes down to personal preference. Both options have their merits and their downsides, and there really doesn’t appear to be a viable alternative. If baseball continues to trend in the current direction, though, we might need to develop one.

Thanks to Harris Yudin for the Play Index data.

 

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