I go back and forth on the whole concept of the quality start. On the one hand, I want to despise the QS for all the same reasons that old-time pitchers and angry announcers despise it, because there's something unsavory about taking what has always been viewed as, at best, an "OK" performance -- six innings, three runs, for crying out loud -- and renaming it a "Quality" performance.
This reminds me of the brilliant Albert Brooks rant about the devil in Broadcast News -- "He will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance. Just a tiny bit." You see it all over the place now, just the slightest exaggeration of language -- a 10-foot putt to win the Masters is "courageous," a five-run rally in the ninth is "unbelievable," a man in black not falling off the cliff after the rope is cut is "inconceivable," a 150-yard rushing day is "superhuman," a 32-year-old outfielder with a troubled past is worth $12 million per, an Adam Sandler movie is "funny" and so on.
There just seems something mind-bending about calling a "6 1/3 inning, 8 hits, 3 runs, all earned, 4 walks, 2 strikeouts" performance a "quality start." There was a time, not too long ago, when a whole bunch of those performances like that would get you sent down to the minor leagues. Quality, as they say, ain't what it used to be.
Well, that's that's one feeling about it. The other, though, is that the world changes. And you cannot judge pitchers by 1973. Starting pitching has changed* for lots of reasons, because of pitch counts, because of smaller strike zones, because of pitching specialization, because of strength training, because of thin-handled bats, because of video study, because of hitter-friendly ballparks, because of health concerns, because of large long-term contracts, because of steroid use, because of countless others things. And the truth is, in today's baseball world, where the length of an average start is between 5 2/3 and 6 innings, a pitcher who throws a quality start really is more or less doing his job.
* I went back to look at the average length of starts over the last 50 years, and I have to admit that I'm a little bit surprised -- I thought starters in the 1950s and '60s and especially '70s would average more than 7 innings per start, maybe eight innings per start. I mean there were 645 complete games in the AL in 1978, and 1/10th of that -- 64 -- in 2007. So I thought the difference would be really dramatic. But far as I can tell -- and it's certainly possible I'm misreading the numbers -- the average start topped out at 6 2/3 in 1971 and is now almost 6 innings. That doesn't seem like a big difference.
Here are a few of the highlight years:
Anyway, the role of the starting pitcher has changed to the point where just in the last week, Royals manager Trey Hillman pulled Gil Meche after retiring 17 batters in a row. It wasn't that he pulled him though, it was that when asked about it he said: "It's a no-brainer for me."* Apparently this was because Meche had thrown 104 pitches or something.
*I've never understood the expression "no-brainer." I mean, I think pulling Meche after retiring 17 in a row is a no-brainer too, but I don't think Trey means the same thing.
Anyway, in this new world, where starting pitchers, on average, do not throw a pitch in the seventh, there has to be a more nuanced way to measure them. The poll question asks everyone to name the N.L. Cy Young Award winner as of right now -- and you can see that Brandon Webb is running away, Tim Lincecum is second, Edinson Volquez is third and Johan Santana fourth. It makes sense. Here are the basic pitching numbers of the Top 4 candidates, in their current order:
Webb: 19-5, 2.96 ERA
Lincecum: 14-3, 2.48 ERA
Volquez: 15-5, 2.80 ERA
Santana: 12-7, 2.64 ERA.*
*Anyway, this was the "current" order when I wrote this post. I look now and C.C. Sabathia has made a huge charge, which I think is great, he's having a very Rick Sutcliffe kind of year. And I see that Ryan Dempster is in there too -- must be those Cubbies fans coming over from SI.com. Welcome! I'm not rewriting the rest of this blog, though, so Volquez and Santana will still be featured.
So, as you see, even though Webb has the highest ERA of the four, even though Lincecum has the most strikeouts, even though Santana has been the most dominant of late ... that's the order. Why? Well, it probably goes down to wins. Even though most of us are of the opinion that wins are a flawed statistic -- and become more flawed all the time -- we cannot help but be swayed by them. It's in our baseball DNA. Webb is bleepin' 19-5! He might win 23 games!
But, honestly, we need to break out of this thought. Wins were a lousy way to judge pitchers 30 years ago. But these days, with SO few pitchers finishing games (Webb has three complete games and one shutout all year -- and even that puts him among the leaders in both categories), wins are even more pointless. A starter has always needed run support to get victories. But now he also needs two or three innings of good relief (Webb averages about 6 2/3 per start, excellent in today's environment but that still leaves 2 1/3 for the pen). And he doesn't just need the pen to hold the victory, he also needs the bullpen to make sure the game doesn't EVER get tied. A pitcher also needs a manager who will stick with him through late inning jams. A pitcher also needs an offense that will keep hitting even with the lead. And so on.
So, while yes, Webb's 19 victories are impressive and unique in today's time, the truth is that's probably more a testament to his bullpen and the way his team has played on days he's pitches.
One way to see how lucky a pitcher has been is to look at his no decisions and losses -- see how many quality starts he has among those. We'll call those "unlucky starts." Webb has just three unlucky starts. On May 21, he gave up three runs in seven innings and took the loss. On July 13, he gave up two runs in seven for a no decision. And on July 20, he gave up one run in eight innings for a no-decision. So that makes him 0-1 with a 2.34 ERA in his three unlucky starts. That means Webb has really squeezed out about as many victories as he can out of this year.
As a contrast, Edinson Volquez has five unlucky starts. He is 0-1 with a 2.61 ERA in those five stars.
Tim Lincecum, meanwhile, has eight unlucky starts. In those eight games, he is 0-1 with a 1.87 ERA.
And finally to Johan Santana*, probably the unluckiest pitcher of all. He has had ELEVEN unlucky starts -- that is, to remind you, eleven Q-Starts where he has either lost or gotten a no decision. in those 11 starts, he is 0-4 with a 1.97 ERA.
*And it should be noted here that Santana has been a monster the last month or so. You might recall that before the season began, I wrote that Santana would have a Pedro like year, a dominating year (and he would throw the Mets first no-hitter). Well, the last month or so he has been exactly what I expected from the start -- since July 22nd, he's 4-0 with a 1.52 ERA, two complete games (one of those a three-hit shutout) and the league hits .204/.246/.311 off him. The guy's incredible.
So, for fun, we could just play with their winning won-loss, take away the losses where they threw quality starts and add no-decision quality starts to the win total.
Totally fake won-loss record:
Webb: 22-4 Lincecum: 21-2 Volquez: 19-4 Santana: 19-3
OK, that really makes no sense. Ignore that. There might be a good way to turn all of this into a good statistic -- that's why I have you fine readers, you can take a crack at it -- but forgetting all that, I think you can see that Lincecum and Santana, while they do not have the victories, are probably pitching as well as Webb, maybe even better.
So, with win-loss clearly not being a good way to judge pitchers these days, how can we do it? Well, it seems to me that we need to find a good way to use and expand on quality starts. I've got a starting point here ... let's try breaking down quality starts into four categories.
Non-quality starts (-1 point): Less than six innings or more than three runs. Quality starts (1 point): Six or seven innings, three runs. Quality plus starts (1.5 points): Eight innings, three runs OR Six or seven innings, one or two runs. Excellent start (2 points): Complete game, three runs or less OR Six plus innings of shutout ball.
This is not ideal at all. It gives a pitcher negative point for, say, five shutout innings. But this is just a starting point.
OK, so ... I don't know what this shows. I suspect this is a lousy way to judge pitchers too. We'll all come up with something. In the meantime, I think the Cy Young voting should be closer than it is. I think Webb's pitching great, but Lincecum is even better, and Santana might be the best of them all by the time the season ends.