Thoughts on Wins and Quality Starts
In an article published earlier this week on his blog-that’s-not-a-blog, Murray Chass raised some interesting points about pampered pitchers in this day and age. The article made some interesting points with regards to pitch counts and 5-man rotations, but he goes on to bring up some questionable points with regards to how pitchers are evaluated.
About 25 years ago, baseball writer John Lowe, then writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer, created a statistic he called Quality Start. If a starter pitched six or more innings and allowed three or fewer earned runs, he received credit for a Quality Start.
Pitchers came to love the statistic and embraced it psychologically. They soon became convinced that all they had to do was last six innings, and they had done their job. Managers contributed to that six-and-out mind-set by adding the bullpen job of set-up man to the closer and then set-up man to the set-up man.
He goes on to discuss what he views as a regrettable move away from wins as a barometer for success by pitchers, using Cy Young award winners Tim Lincecum, Felix Hernandez, and Zack Greinke, along with Pittsburgh arbitration winner and 1-11 starter Ross Ohlendorf .
My first question – how is a quality start any worse a measurement of a pitchers ability than a win? For a quality start, you need to go 6 innings and give up 3 runs or fewer. That’s not a high standard for dominance, but it’s something quantitative and qualitative related to factors (pretty much) in the pitcher’s control. For a win, on the other hand, you really only have to go 5; and there’s no standard for how well you pitch. You can give up 9 as long as your buddies score you 10 and your bullpen backs you up.
The idea behind a quality start is very simple really: did you give your team a chance to win? If you’ve gone 2/3 of the way through a game and kept your opponent to 3 runs, then you’ve given your team a reasonable expectation of winning, plain and simple. Yes, that amounts to a 4.50 ERA, which isn’t considered very good, but step away from the statistic for a second (bet you’d never hear me say that!) and look at what it means in the context of that game. The average team scored 4.38 runs per game last season, so in the context of the game even the minimum requisite for a quality start has given the team at least a decent shot at winning. Have you ever been watching a baseball game that your favorite team was playing in which they’ve given up 3 runs through 6 and thought, wow, game over? Maybe if the opposing pitcher is really dealing but, like run support, pitchers have absolutely no control over what happens when they’re not on the mound; that’s why most folks who follow baseball have stepped away from wins as an accurate measurement for pitching effectiveness.
Chass continues by citing a player near and dear to my heart, former Milwaukee Brave Warren Spahn:
But given one of the primary excuses for pitchers not winning games, this, I think, is my favorite Spahn statistic: the man gained 25 percent of his victories, 91 of 363, when his team scored three or fewer runs.
Warren Spahn was an all-time great pitcher. He was able to win so many games with low run support because he himself was a tremendously gifted pitcher, with a career ERA just a shade above 3 and a career WHIP below 1.200. Had he pitched for even higher run-producing teams (though it’s hard to complain about pitching behind Aaron and Matthews!), he would have won more games, pure and simple.
Same with Felix Hernandez last year. He went 13-12 for no other reason besides the fact that his team scored the fewest runs of any team in the history of the DH era. He led the league in both ERA and innings pitched. He wasn’t going 6 and hitting the showers. On average, he pitched into the eighth inning and dominated opponents. But his team was historically bad at hitting. If you don’t change a thing about his starts but allow him to have CC Sabathia’s offense, he would have won 25 games or so, and you would have thought he was awesome (which, he was). I’ll point out that in his NINE no-decisions, King Felix averaged just over 7 innings a start with an ERA of 1.92, WHIP of 1.036 and 8.1 K/9.
Same thing with Ross Ohlendorf. The man was dinged up last year, so he was limited to 21 starts, but if you look at the past two seasons, he’s very clearly worthy of 2 million dollars in arbitration. Since 2009, he has started 50 games and maintained an above-average ERA. He’s not an all-star or anything, but his 1 win should not reflect his performance. In his nine no-decisions (almost half of his starts), Ohlendorf had a 2.62 ERA. Unless you think his salary should be based off his performance at the plate, 2 million is pretty fair (remember, Gil Meche was making 10+ million a season before he retired).
He then quotes his friend Marty Noble as saying the following:
I’m never going to measure a guy based on the number of 1-0 wins, but the best pitchers can win regardless of their support.
Felix Hernandez had 13 wins last year, despite having arguably the worst offense of all time (certainly the worst since the implementation of the DH in 1973). He did win regardless of his support. I would even contend that no pitcher in history could have actually won that magical 20 games with the mediocre run support that Felix Hernandez received. Not Koufax. Not Spahn. Not Palmer, or Seaver, or Mathewson, or Young.
Not even Pedro Martinez, who won the 2000 Cy Young award even though Tim Hudson and David Wells won more games. That season, he went 18-6, while having a better ERA in his losses than any other pitcher in the league had period (he won the ERA title by 2.00 runs).
Chass also includes a small diatribe against WAR, which would probably make him a lot of friends on this site. I would argue that, if anything, WAR may have underrated Felix Hernandez’s last couple seasons; I could easily see him being worth an extra 8 or 9 wins to his team as opposed to the 6 he has been valued at for the past couple seasons.
Nonetheless, I think the league leader in WAR is usually a better Cy Young candidate than the league leader in wins, although this past season in the National League was a noteworthy exception.
Anyway, I’m curious to hear all of your thoughts on wins, quality starts, WAR, retired New York Times sports columnists, or anything pertaining to how pitchers are evaluated statistically in this day and age.