Many among the analytically inclined dismiss the Quality Start as a statistic. They’re wrong.
Coined by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s John Lowe in 1985, a pitcher is credited with a quality start if they throw at least six innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs. You don’t have to look far for take downs. The Wikipedia article for the statistic devotes more time to its “criticisms” and “possible new criteria” sections than to actual information about the stat. Fangraphs doesn’t even track them.
The basic argument against the QS is that if a pitcher meets the minimum criteria (6 IP and >4 ER), he’s got a 4.50 ERA for the game. That creates two problems. First, it’s not very good and thus undeserving of the descriptor quality. Second, it puts those outings in the same breath as gems like Félix’s perfecto. Beyond that, some excellent games, such as Randy Johnson’s 1997 game in which he struck out 19 and pitched a complete game, but gave up four earned runs doesn’t count as a quality start, even though he had an ERA of just 4.00 for the game.
These are strong points, so let me be clear. When I say that people are wrong to dismiss the quality start, it’s not that their criticisms are inaccurate. It’s just that they overstate their case by dismissing the stat entirely—we all know that only a sith deals in absolutes. The QS is a worthwhile statistic because it usefully answers one, if only one, important question: did the starter give the team a reasonable chance to win? And limited to that inquiry, the QS is a terrific shortcut. It’s useful precisely because the minimum standard isn’t that great but still reflects an outing the team could win.
As a case in point, let’s turn to one Marco Gonzales. Despite relatively lackluster peripheral statistics, Marco has 57 QS since his first full season with Seattle. And it speaks to the difference between his real-world value to the team, where he’s got seven this year, and the stats that the analytics community fawns over like CSW, FIP, and WAR. where he’s at a paltry 21.3%, 5.44, and -0.3 on the year, respectively. Today is a perfect example.
Marco only struck out five, but he absolutely gave the offense a chance to win. That’s fundamentally what you pay starting pitchers to do. Marco was quintessentially Marco from the very beginning, perfectly sequencing his pitches against Texas’s fearsome top of the order. He relied solely on sinkers and changeups (his best pitches) to get Marcus Semien and Corey Seager out. He then tried his cutter a couple times against Mitch Garver, but when he couldn’t land it for a strike (pitches 2 and 3 below), he smartly abandoned it and returned to his sinker and change. Once Garver started turning it into a battle, Marco went with the pitch Garver hadn’t seen yet, using a perfectly placed curveball to freeze Garver for the called strikeout.
After taking just 34 pitches to get through a perfect three innings, trouble brewed in the fourth. Semien opened the inning with a grounder against the shift for a single. With one out, Gonzales lost his command in his second time facing Garver, issuing a four-pitch walk. On the next pitch, Adolis García took a changeup over the wall for a three-run jack.
Just like that, Marco let three baserunners score, all on one swing. But he buckled down, to keep his team in the game, getting Sam Huff to pop up to J.P. and Nate Lowe to strike out to end the inning, followed by two more innings with just one hit. Five strikeouts isn’t going to make front-page news, but Marco pitched with quality, and got a QS to show for it.
Unfortunately, three runs was enough, as all the Mariners could muster was two. Quality’s a funny word. As a noun, it’s agnostic, defined as the degree of excellence. Something can be high quality or low quality. But when used as an adjective, as it is in quality start, it becomes judgmental, necessarily meaning that the thing was of high quality. Facility with English requires comfort with dualities like that. Dualities like the fact that even though Marco pitched well today, he still took the L.
Words can have associative meanings as well. For instance, perhaps you can’t hear the word quality without thinking of Creed Bratton struggling to remember his job title and stumbling up to “quabity assuance.” It’s a lesson that sometimes you can screw up and get away with it anyway, just like Julio did when he exacerbated his unfamiliarity with the dimensions of Globe Life Field by getting a bad read on a deep fly ball but making the out anyway:
Similarly at the plate, Julio brushed off a bad day yesterday by capturing his first multiwalk game, his 16th stolen base, and a hard-hit single. Julio’s the right kind of sinner; he won’t let a bad day get him down, and it’s how he’s getting away with his mistakes.
Or perhaps you’re more highbrow than The Office, and quality calls to mind Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and its famous “quality of mercy” speech. At the climax, Portia tries to convince Shylock that he doesn’t really need a pound of Antonio’s flesh, arguing, “The quality of mercy is not strained./It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath.” Another quality of mercy is that we feel relief; it brings us peace that someone suffering is given reprieve. It’s how I felt when career slugger Jesse Winker finally parked one over the fence after two months of failing to live up to his personal standard.
Jesse sends this one a country mile! pic.twitter.com/ujVKRRyZc8— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) June 4, 2022
That ball went 441 feet, finally making good on Winker’s promise. It was a small mercy. Even though this game slipped away and the two RBIs on this homer weren’t enough, for a moment, we were all able to breathe easier. And let’s hope it takes the pressure off Jesse Winker too. Maybe having been shown mercy by the expected stats gods, he can finally get back to being himself.
Or perhaps you’re more science-oriented than artsy, and so when you hear quality, you think of energy quality, the ease with which one form of energy turns into another. Having a high energy quality makes such a conversion easier. So for you, maybe quality calls to mind the top of today’s eighth inning.
Pictured above is a nuclear bomb’s worth of potential energy. All four of these guys are about to unwind their coils and transfer that potential energy into the kinetic energy of a swing coming into contact with a baseball, sending it back the other direction, to the tune of a combined 421.6 miles per hour of exit velocity. Each hitter unleashed enough energy for an xBA over .550. But despite the high energy quality of the middle of the Mariners lineup, they only managed to get two baserunners out of it, neither of which would score.
That’s how the Mariners lost today. Despite a quality start from Marco, and Winker getting the team to within one, this should-have-been eighth-inning rally ended after Adam Frazier mekely grounded out. I hear the blues a-callin’ indeed.
But before we go, a word on quality over quantity.
I saw some folks a little angry about this at bat, where Cal Raliegh let pitches 3, 4, and 5 go by for called strikes. But I couldn’t disagree more. Kate’s got a working theory that Mitch Haniger fixed Cal Raleigh by telling Cal, “You’re a fastball hitter. Just hunt the fastball.” And it’s been hard not to notice Cal’s improvement since getting that advice. Since May 1, he’s got a 99 wRC+. Since May 15, it’s 125. And he’s done it largely by laying off of breaking balls, because when he does connect with a fastball, he hits the crap out of it, as he did two innings before this at bat, when he smacked a sinker at 104.4 mph for a hit. We want quality swings from Cal, not quantity. If the cost is that he’s going to strikeout looking more often, so be it. Cal’s improved approach wins him today’s Sun Hat Award for notable contribution, his second in a row. Yes, I’m giving Cal an award for striking out. Do not attack me for presenting new ideas.