Quality Start, But That’s About It

Cliff Lee
Philadelphia Phillies pitcher, Cliff Lee, shut down the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series over nine innings. (Photo by Noah K. Murray/The Star-Ledger)

Remember as a kid when you would turn over the baseball card of one of your favorite pitchers to see how many quality starts he had? Yeah, neither do I. But for those of you who don’t realize that a “quality start” is actually a statistic kept in modern-day baseball, and valued by many within the game, let me define it for you: A Quality Start is when a starting pitcher goes, at least, six innings and allows no more than three earned runs. That’s a 4.50 ERA at worst, but actually acceptable in this context. 4.50! As in four and a half runs per nine innings! Not really my version of quality, but obviously pitching standards have declined over the years. And I’m not talking just about since the first quarter of the 20th Century. I’m talking about a drastic decline in the last 30 years.

So it was quite refreshing to see Cliff Lee shut down the Yankees over nine innings in the last World Series. And not because I’m one of those Yankee haters. But because it was a modern-day pitcher pitching in an important game, in what turned out to be a 6-1 win for Philadelphia in Game 1. This was Phillies manager, Charlie Manuel saying, “You’re the best I have, and this is your game.” Unfortunately, those type of post-season pitching performances have become rare. And instances where you see pitchers, who normally would start a game, come in to close out a post-season game on short rest (Orel Hershiser, in the 1988 NLCS against the Mets; Randy Johnson, in the 2001 World Series against the Yankees)…well, forget about it. The increased specialization and overuse of the bullpen has cut short the ability of a starting pitcher to take control of the game. But it has also contributed to the thing Major League organizations fear — high priced investments breaking down in their prime.

Take a look at the Major League complete games leaders for each decade since 1900 (take note of the bold): Jack Chesbro (1904) 48 CG; Walter Johnson (1910) and Grover Cleveland Alexander (1916) 38 CG; Alexander (1920) and Burleigh Grimes (1923) 33 CG; Wes Ferrell (1935), Bobo Newsom (1938) and Bucky Walters (1939) 31 CG; Bob Feller (1946) 36 CG; Robin Roberts (1953) 33 CG; Juan Marichal (1968) 30 CG; Fergie Jenkins (1971), Steve Carlton (1972) and Jim “Catfish” Hunter (1975) 30 CG; Rick Langford (1980) 28 CG; Jack McDowell (1991) and Curt Schilling (1998) 15 CG; David Wells (2000), Bartolo Colon, Mark Mulder (2003), Livan Hernandez (2004) and Roy Halladay (2003, 2008, 2009) 9 CG. Again, the decline over the last 30 years is staggering.

Leo Mazzone got it. And when he was pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves from 1990 to 2005, he made sure his pitchers’ training regimen contained a lot of throwing. Take a look at how many seasons of 200 or more innings he got out his starting staff: Tom Glavine – 11, Greg Maddux – 10, John Smoltz – 7, Steve Avery and Kevin Millwood – 3. Sure it helps that Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz are probably on their way to the Hall of Fame, but perhaps they owe a debt of gratitude to their former pitching coach. After all, he understood that the more you pitch, the stronger your arm gets. The stronger your arm gets, the longer you last. Not just during the game, but in your career. Take a look at the careers of some of the pitchers mentioned earlier, guys like Walter Johnson, Alexander, Carlton, Schilling…they all pitched 20 or more seasons. And these are just a few pitchers who threw a lot of innings year after year, yet managed to have long careers.

The shame is that Mazzone’s theory never really caught on. The Braves of those years just seemed an anomaly, because ever since then, the innings pitched by starters have been on the decline.

However, there is hope in today’s Texas Rangers organization. Ever since Nolan Ryan (who averaged 232 innings a season, himself) took over as president of the club, he has stressed starters going deeper into games. And, in order not to blow out the arms of the pitchers currently on the Rangers’ staff — pitchers brought through the Major League ranks coddled like many of the rest — he is initiating this in the low Minors. So perhaps we’ll see a new generation of Rangers pitchers who are stronger, pitching more innings and owning their games once again. Or, maybe this will just be another anomaly like the Braves of the 1990s. Only time will tell.

But it’s obvious the benefits outweigh the risk. It’s just that no one want to take the risk when there’s this much money involved. But why give that kind of money to fragile players? Would you invest heavily in a car that looked good, ran well for two-thirds of your journey, but you were afraid to drive it the last third because it might break down? Maybe you could take three buses the rest of the way to complete your journey each time, much like using set up men in the seventh and eighth innings, and a closer in the ninth. Or maybe you just invest in a car that takes you the entire way.