Major League Baseball’s Quality Start and the continued softening of America

A customer walked into the bar the other day, a younger guy in his mid-twenties.  After having a series of mini-conversations with him, he appeared relatively baseball knowledgeable, which struck me as odd considering true baseball fans his age are getting harder to come by.

MLB: Houston Astros at Tampa Bay RaysHe sipped his beer, tuning intently to the Rays-Yankees game while I tended to the rest of the bar.

A statistic flashed across the screen.  Chris Archer, the young Rays starter, was attempting to become the first opposing pitcher since 1907 to win his first five outings against the New York Yankees.

Curious as to who accomplished this feat over a century ago, the young man took to his Google Machine to look up the answer.

He told me the guy went by the name “Big Train,” chuckling at the nickname.  It soon became clear he had never heard of Walter Johnson before.

I told him to look up some of Johnson’s all-time records.  After discovering that he was the all-time leader in shutouts with 110 and second only to Cy Young in career victories, the young man suddenly gained a new found respect for all things he had never heard of before right there in front of my eyes.

Despite his career accomplishments, however, the Big Train has not a single recorded quality start over his career.

At the risk of sounding like a total old fart, I told my new friend that back in the day, there was no such thing as a “Quality Start,” which sounds more like a Denny’s ad campaign than it does a pitching accomplishment.

Walter Big Train JohnsonAccording to Major League Baseball, a quality start is when a game’s opening pitcher completes six full innings while allowing three earned runs or less.  Back in the day, a win was a quality start.  Three runs in six innings?  Walter Johnson would have scoffed at the idea.

Welcome to the softening of America.

In 1946, Bob Feller threw 371 innings for the Cleveland Indians.  That led the league.  In 1971, Mickey Lolich led the Majors in innings pitched for the Detroit Tigers with 376.  Steve Carlton led the Major Leagues with 304 innings pitched in 1980.  That, my friends, is the last time a starting pitcher finished a season with over 300 innings pitched.

These days, if you get 200 innings out of your starter, he gets a pat on the back and a “Hope your arm ain’t broke so we can sign ya’ next year” chuckle while the guys in the front office secretly consider whether his career might be over.

I decided to do a little research to find out exactly when Major League Baseball started paying attention to this number.  Detective Bill James at your service.

Nolan Ryan SI CoverMajor League Baseball started keeping record of “quality starts” in 1985, which means guys like Nolan Ryan who pitched nearly their entire career with no run support received no recognition for such a statistic, not that they’d have wanted it.

To me, the quality start just sounds like we’re rewarding people for doing their jobs.  Hey, you didn’t get shelled and made it six innings?  Here’s a gold star.

Did you know that the current active leader in innings pitched is Mark Buehrle.  He’s 133rd on the all-time innings pitched list.  That means that no active player is anywhere close to having the duration of those who came before him.  Not a single pitcher.

I understand that pitchers are investments.  I also understand that arms get tired.  But with athletes these days better conditioned than they’ve ever been (and throwing just as hard, mind you), why are we so obsessed with pitch counts to the point that we need to invent another statistic which bears no meaning?

Can you imagine what pitchers were doing back in the Negro League days?  We can’t because there are no official records but I guarantee you’d need an army to get guys like Satchel Paige off the mound.  In 1884, Old Hoss Radbourn threw 678 innings for the Providence Grays.  Do you know what it would take for a pitcher to throw 678 innings these days?  Three seasons!

If I owned a Major League Baseball team, I’d take every precaution with my pitching staff.  But I’d also want winners, guys I could count on.  I’d choose feel over pitch count every day.  And as the boss, I’d measure a quality start by the effort a pitcher gave me and not by what it said on the back of some new-fangled baseball card.

22 thoughts on “Major League Baseball’s Quality Start and the continued softening of America

  1. Great read Sportschump!!! Verrrrrry interesting & well written … kept me reading and I learned stuff! Yr amazing … (and NOT an old fart). I’m sure yr a bartender that young man will always remember & talk about. Nicely done sir.

  2. There’s another statistic that I doubt you’ll ever come across: What percentage of MLB starting pitchers last longer than 5 years at the major league level? Compare that stat, if you can find it, on a then and now basis. I’m thinking pitchers like Cy Young, Satchel Page, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson were extremely rare birds for lasting so long and pitching at such a high level across the years. I’d only be guessing but I believe today’s MLB has a much higher percentage of starters lasting longer than 5 years than in yesteryears thanks to the pitch count concerns… Note that I used percentage instead of actual numbers of pitchers so the comparison would be fair since today’s MLB draws from all over the world and there are so many more teams today as well…

    Here’s something curious concerning MLB today… What particular methodology is now being honed which could earn a player MVP votes and it doesn’t concern hitting, the act of pitching, or base running,,, My favorite team has one of the best in the game BTW…

  3. Chris, this is one of the many issues I have with MLB. It is completely counter-intuitive to be able to now grow and develop the biggest, strongest and sharpest athletes of all time and then “cap” them as to their ability to well…use their ability. It’s almost a given starting pitching just has to “survive” six innings these days to be considered successful. What are you saving superior talent for when a third of the game is still in the balance? These guys should be able to go the distance and they should have the passion to do so as well. When we were growing up it was expected a guy would go nine unless he got shelled early on or the game went extra innings. Baseball has gotten “soft” in a number of ways in recent years and indeed this is yet another.

  4. Don’t look now, Al, but the Rays have won another game.

    That’s a sweep of the Yankees in the Bronx, only their second in franchise history and what, wins in seven of their last eight games?

    She may be warming up her pipes but the fat lady ain’t singin’ yet.

  5. Here ya’ go, Dwin.

    1. Cy Young+ (22) 7356.0 R
    2. Pud Galvin+ (15) 6003.1 R
    3. Walter Johnson+ (21) 5914.1 R
    4. Phil Niekro+ (24) 5404.0 R
    5. Nolan Ryan+ (27) 5386.0 R
    6. Gaylord Perry+ (22) 5350.0 R
    7. Don Sutton+ (23) 5282.1 R
    8. Warren Spahn+ (21) 5243.2 L
    9. Steve Carlton+ (24) 5217.2 L
    10. Pete Alexander+ (20) 5190.0 R
    11. Kid Nichols+ (15) 5067.1 R
    12. Tim Keefe+ (14) 5049.2 R
    13. Greg Maddux+ (23) 5008.1 R
    14. Bert Blyleven+ (22) 4970.0 R
    15. Bobby Mathews (15) 4956.0 R
    16. Roger Clemens (24) 4916.2 R
    17. Mickey Welch+ (13) 4802.0 R
    18. Christy Mathewson+ (17) 4788.2 R
    19. Tom Seaver+ (20) 4783.0 R
    20. Tommy John (26) 4710.1 L
    21. Robin Roberts+ (19) 4688.2 R
    22. Early Wynn+ (23) 4564.0 R
    23. John Clarkson+ (12) 4536.1 R
    24. Tony Mullane (13) 4531.1
    25. Jim Kaat (25) 4530.1 L
    26. Old Hoss Radbourn+ (12) 4527.1 R
    27. Fergie Jenkins+ (19) 4500.2 R
    28. Eddie Plank+ (17) 4495.2 L
    29. Eppa Rixey+ (21) 4494.2 L
    30. Tom Glavine+ (22) 4413.1 L
    31. Jack Powell (16) 4389.0 R
    32. Red Ruffing+ (22) 4344.0 R
    33. Gus Weyhing (14) 4337.0 R
    34. Jim McCormick (10) 4275.2 R
    35. Frank Tanana (21) 4188.1 L
    36. Burleigh Grimes+ (19) 4180.0 R
    37. Ted Lyons+ (21) 4161.0 R
    38. Randy Johnson (22) 4135.1 L
    39. Red Faber+ (20) 4086.2 R
    40. Jamie Moyer (25) 4074.0 L
    41. Dennis Martinez (23) 3999.2 R
    42. Vic Willis+ (13) 3996.0 R
    43. Jim Palmer+ (19) 3948.0 R
    44. Lefty Grove+ (17) 3940.2 L
    45. Jack Quinn (23) 3920.1 R
    46. Bob Gibson+ (17) 3884.1 R
    47. Sad Sam Jones (22) 3883.0 R
    48. Jerry Koosman (19) 3839.1 L
    49. Bob Feller+ (18) 3827.0 R
    50. Jack Morris (18) 3824.0 R
    Rank Player (yrs, age) Innings Pitched Throws
    51. Charlie Hough (25) 3801.1 R
    52. Amos Rusie+ (10) 3778.2 R
    53. Waite Hoyt+ (21) 3762.1 R
    54. Jim Bunning+ (17) 3760.1 R
    55. Bobo Newsom (20) 3759.1 R
    56. George Mullin (14) 3686.2 R
    57. Jerry Reuss (22) 3669.2 L
    58. Paul Derringer (15) 3645.0 R
    59. Mickey Lolich (16) 3638.1 L
    60. Tommy Bond (10) 3628.2 R
    61. Bob Friend (16) 3611.0 R
    62. Carl Hubbell+ (16) 3590.1 L
    63. Joe Niekro (22) 3584.1 R
    64. Herb Pennock+ (22) 3571.2 L
    65. Earl Whitehill (17) 3564.2 L
    66. Mike Mussina (18) 3562.2 R
    67. Rick Reuschel (19) 3548.1 R
    68. Will White (10) 3542.2 R
    69. Adonis Terry (14) 3514.1 R
    70. Juan Marichal+ (16) 3507.0 R
    71. Jim Whitney (10) 3496.1 R
    72. Luis Tiant (19) 3486.1 R
    73. Wilbur Cooper (15) 3480.0 L
    74. John Smoltz (21) 3473.0 R
    75. Claude Osteen (18) 3460.2 L
    76. Catfish Hunter+ (15) 3449.1 R
    77. Joe McGinnity+ (10) 3441.1 R
    78. David Wells (21) 3439.0 L
    79. Don Drysdale+ (14) 3432.0 R
    80. Mel Harder (20) 3426.1 R
    81. Charlie Buffinton (11) 3404.0 R
    82. Hooks Dauss (15) 3390.2 R
    83. Clark Griffith+ (21) 3385.2 R
    84. Doyle Alexander (19) 3367.2 R
    85. Chick Fraser (14) 3364.0 R
    86. Al Orth (15) 3354.2 R
    87. Curt Simmons (20) 3348.1 L
    88. Vida Blue (17) 3343.1 L
    89. Andy Pettitte (18) 3316.0 L
    90. Rube Marquard+ (18) 3306.2 L
    Billy Pierce (18) 3306.2 L
    92. Kenny Rogers (20) 3302.2 L
    93. Dennis Eckersley+ (24) 3285.2 R
    Jim Perry (17) 3285.2 R
    95. Larry Jackson (14) 3262.2 R
    96. Curt Schilling (20) 3261.0 R
    97. Kevin Brown (19) 3256.1 R
    98. Tim Wakefield (19) 3226.1 R
    99. Eddie Cicotte (14) 3226.0 R
    100. Freddie Fitzsimmons (19) 3223.2 R
    101. Dolf Luque (20) 3220.1 R
    102. Dutch Leonard (20) 3218.1 R
    103. Jesse Haines+ (19) 3208.2 R
    104. Red Ames (17) 3198.0 R
    105. Chuck Finley (17) 3197.1 L
    Charlie Root (17) 3197.1 R
    107. Livan Hernandez (17) 3189.0 R
    108. Milt Pappas (17) 3186.0 R
    109. Silver King (10) 3180.2 R
    110. Mordecai Brown+ (14) 3172.1 R
    111. Whitey Ford+ (16) 3170.1 L
    112. Lee Meadows (15) 3160.2 R
    113. Larry French (14) 3152.0 L
    114. Orel Hershiser (18) 3130.1 R
    115. Rick Wise (18) 3127.1 R
    116. Tom Zachary (19) 3126.1 L
    117. George Uhle (17) 3119.2 R
    118. Bucky Walters (19) 3104.2 R
    119. Bob Welch (17) 3092.0 R
    120. Bullet Joe Bush (17) 3085.1 R
    121. Stan Coveleski+ (14) 3082.0 R
    122. Bill Hutchinson (9) 3079.1 R
    123. Bill Dinneen (12) 3074.2 R
    124. Lew Burdette (18) 3067.1 R
    125. Murry Dickson (18) 3052.1 R
    126. Mike Torrez (18) 3043.2 R
    127. Doc White (13) 3041.0 L
    128. Brickyard Kennedy (12) 3030.0 R
    129. Carl Mays (15) 3021.1 R
    130. Chief Bender+ (16) 3017.0 R
    131. Danny Darwin (21) 3016.2 R
    132. Pink Hawley (10) 3012.2 R
    133. Mark Buehrle (15, 35)

    The top ranked pitchers by innings pitched. 1-132 are all already retired.

    We see guys like Mussina, Pettitte, Moyer, Rogers, the Unit up there but how many guys are really anywhere close?

    Clemens ended up 16th and he was juiced…. allegedly.

  6. For old school guys like us, Burnsy, that’s a thorn in the side.

    Now imagine how it must feel for old school manager who want to throw their guys but are overruled by the powers that be.

    It’s a changed game, that’s for sure.

  7. Well… Here’s what I could find concerning starting pitchers’ time in the majors… Fewer than half of all rookies remain long enough to play a fifth year. And only about 1 percent of players last 20 seasons or more but those figures exclude pitchers since they are much more injury-prone! I guess if Google can’t find those stats nobody can… What it does point out though is just how rare long-lived pitchers really are and that your list of pitchers and their innings thrown stats are the exception. As you pointed out, the powers that be have, for better or for worse, changed how pitchers are handled in an attempt to preserve their investment. I’m sure you’ve seen many examples of pitchers being pulled from games against their will simply because the pitch count dictates it and then the reliever comes in and blows it…

    BTW, the practice I alluded to that will get a player MVP votes these days is called “framing”. Catchers have made a science out of holding a pitch in their glove for the umpire to get a good look at and possibly get a strike call. The Giants’ Buster Posey is one of the very best at it. How many pitchers have had their stats padded by catchers well-honed in framing pitches?

  8. Nice scribble grampa. So when do we get to hear the story of how you walked 30 miles to school with no shoes in a blizzard?

    Dollars are to blame…as usual.

    Unfortunately, the pussification of America isn’t limited to America’s pastime…But that’s another rant all together.

  9. Interesting read. I recall an article I read from the NY Daily News earlier this year. One of my all time favorites Nolan Ryan weighed in on the subject of innings pitched. He said pitchers today don’t pitch enough.. don’t develop stamina. He said when he pitched it was routine to throw 300 innings. He did not like the 100 pitch limit in today’s game.
    And speaking of bars and stats… I once knew a guy who would say “Kenny’s the name.. drinking beer’s the game.” But did he ever know stats! I was never able to stump him with a stats question about a Red Sox player.

  10. Thoroughly enjoyed the read, Rev… and while I do have to agree that the measurement of a quality start is a bit weak, I’m still happy they exist, because any time one of the pitchers on my Fantasy team gets one, I gain four points. A loss is -4… so a guy can go 6 innings, give up three runs and lose 3-0.. the quality start washes out the loss.

    Yes, I have no idea why I’m even telling you that.

  11. Dwin…

    If catchers are so successful at framing pitches, and I agree that there are many out there that are, then why the hell can’t starting pitchers stay on the mound longer?

  12. Al…

    The AL East is always a tough division to win.

    .650 the rest of the way out?

    I won’t say it’s impossible.

    I will say that I probably wouldn’t bet on it.

  13. Bleed…

    I used to haul bricks of ice…. yea, yea yea.

    Actually, there was a point in time where I would lift kegs.

    Needless to say, those days are long gone.

  14. Newsdad….

    I once met Nolan Ryan.

    This was way back in the day, probably mid-80s. He was pitching for the ‘Stros at the time.

    Let me tell you something.

    That’s a big dude. He was already old then but he was a specimen, in incredible shape and still able to mow down batters.

    This was even before he beat the crap out of Robin Ventura.

    And for the record, he’s right. Pitchers don’t pitch enough.

  15. I think Dwindy has it right though the stat most illustrative in this decline is the “Complete Game” used to be teams had a bunch of guys with them, today hardly no one.

    That was always the ‘true’ test of a starting pitcher… let everyone rest today I’ve got it.

  16. I haven’t had a chance to look over the MLB All-Star rosters yet, Al. Let’s just say the news of LeBron’s latest decision has kind of taken precedent.

    Tough break for the Yankees re: Tanaka though. I hear he’s gonna be about for six weeks? That division is still anyone’s for the taking… except for the Rays of course.

    And yes, I’ll have my LeBron take up soon so stay tuned.

  17. Tree…

    I agree with you both but with complete games come innings pitched.

    How’s this for a statistic?

    The last time a pitcher had double digits complete games? James Shields for the Rays in 2011 (11).

    The last time a pitcher had 15 or more complete games in a season? Curt Schilling for the Phillies in 1998 (15).

    The last time a pitcher had 20 or more complete games in a season? Fernando Valenzuela for the Dodgers obviously in 1986 (20).

    Randy Jones had 25 complete games in 1976 for the Padres.

    Steve Carlton had 30 complete games for the Phils in 1972.

    Need I continue?

  18. Yes, Rev, guilty as charged. Hey, we get four points for a quality start in that league. Most of the time, she’s sleeping on the couch anyway… thanks to TSLS (the son that loves sports)… fingers crossed…

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