I kind of like the "quality start" -- the achievement bestowed on a pitcher who goes at least six innings and gives up three or fewer earned runs -- despite, or maybe because of, how hilariously underwhelming it is. It covers ground that’s so obviously better covered by basic or advanced stats that it has a quirky charm to it, like a town proclamation you’d give to the local dentist and he’d frame for the waiting room and you’d be all like: Yeah, okay, this guy’s good enough. He’s not gonna kill me during this teeth cleaning.
At its heart, the quality start says not that you did great, not that you screwed up, but that you probably kept things close enough for your lineup. While it's technically bestowed on someone not only who barely meets the criteria above but the perfect game tosser as well, it doesn’t work that way in practice. Pull a Kershaw through six innings and no one will mention it, but give up three runs, and boom, there’s your quality start. It is the platonic ideal of damning with faint praise.
It reminds me of a joke from 30 Rock, when Liz Lemon (Tina Fey) is trying to tank NBC's ratings and is approached by Frank Rossitano (trucker hat fetishist Judah Friedlander), an oversized pear of a human being who asks her if he can have a sitcom "with a hot wife," to which she immediately responds: "Gain 50 pounds first!" The joke is simple: The honor isn't for people who are good. It's for people who are bad in a very specific way.
Which brings us to this year's Clay Buchholz, for whom the quality start was seemingly designed:
Clay Buchholz, if done, just delivered his 3rd quality start of 2016. (One of his 4 runs allowed was unearned.)— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) May 21, 2016
I’m of two minds on this. One the one hand, this is a case where the quality start tag is actually instructive. It has been easy, recently, to think of Buchholz as terrible and irredeemable, but on the other hand, he’s capable of pitching well enough from time to time, too, which has its value. On the other hand, so do pennies, and I once had a girlfriend who threw pennies into the street "so the kids can play with them," a description into which I didn’t dig very far, as it conjured visions of children getting mowed down by cars -- but I am often tempted to throw the quality start into the street as well.
The problem with the quality start isn’t simply that it’s bad shorthand, but it is definitely that. Truth be told, it worked fine with the game of 15 years ago, juiced to the gills and inflating ERAs like Zimbabwean currency, even if it was hatched in 1985. For the game as we know it now, it’s simply too lenient, something into which Alex Speier dipped a toe:
Should quality starts be redefined on annual sliding scale? Teams' records when SPs go exactly 6IP w/3ER in 2016: 21-30. In 2015: 95-109.— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) May 21, 2016
Which is timely, given the current state of things:
I know it's not best indicator of success and it's still very early but my goodness look at top 20 ERA pic.twitter.com/U66nqDT20k— Guy Baseball Crank (@thetweethaver) May 21, 2016
And yet I kinda still like the idea of it, because it can reveal some workaday consistency that is often lost in the way we discuss baseball. Our idea of "replacement level" players assumes that athletes of different ages and styles and makeups can take the spots of others, independent of context, and you know what happens when you assume -- i.e., you’re usually right. But not always.
As it works now, I assume when I hear someone has logged a quality start that they’ve pitched kind of meh. It’s a start with a nice personality, basically. It still doesn’t tell me what I want to know. So here are seven ways we can fix the Quality Start, in order to render it something we’d want to bring home to mom.
Change it to 2 earned runs over 6 innings
This is the easiest and best tweak. A 3.00 ERA has always denoted a positive outcome, and even if a pitcher gets there in Buchholzian fashion -- few K’s, lotsa walks, heaps of luck -- it’s still a high-quality result. I’m still as uncomfortable with the earned/unearned run distinction here as I am with the distinction generally; while it’s nice in theory, in practice it basically exists to enable shady accounting purposes, but there’s less wiggle room with 2 ER than 3, which leads to silliness when an extra run is tacked on.
Create separate tiers for better performance
If three runs in six innings connotes quality, what does zero runs through eight inning signify? Greatness? We could institute a shifting scale of semantic measures pitchers could hit, looking something like this:
Awful start: 3 innings, 5 or more ER
Bad start: 4 innings, 4 ER
Mediocre start: 5 innings, 3 ER
Quality start: 6 innings, 3 ER
Decent start: 7 innings, 3-4 ER
Good start: 7 innings, 2-3 ER
Great start: 8 innings 2 or fewer ER
Golden start: 9 innings, 2 or 1 ER
Kershaw: 9 innings, 0 ER
This is just the quality start taken to an extreme whereupon it actually becomes fun. If we’re gonna attach labels to performances and pretend that they actually mean something, let’s not paint everyone with the same brush.
Have a sliding scale
This was Speier’s suggestion, and I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. If we’re crunching numbers with any sort of alacrity, we really don’t need to use quality starts at all -- they exist specifically so that we don’t have to bother with any sort of advanced calculation. So yes, we could scale the requirements to whatever was league-average at the time, but it seems to create diminishing returns. We’d still be handing out what are effectively participation ribbons, but we’d be just be more pedantic and annoying about it. Suffice to say we probably don't need to be any worse than we already are.
Put a ceiling on it
This is like option two, but without the extra layers of performance. We could make a quality start only recognize average-to-above average outings, i.e., those of 6 or 7 innings with 2 or 3 earned runs allowed. Thus, instead of saying so-and-so (let’s go with Steven Wright) has such-and-such number of quality starts in a row, we’d say he has such-and-such numbers of "quality starts or better" in a row. Even this tweak would be better than the current system.
Change the name
Also known as the Stringer Bell option. If we could disassociate the "achievement" of being just okay at your job with being good at it, we might be able to appreciate the current quality start for what it is: An achievement signifying that we are a little closer to death without having seen a pitcher self-immolate. I’d prefer to change the way we think about it at all, and just say a pitcher who went 6 and gave up 3 "got over," with the "over" constituting more than half the game. I know it’s actually one more out than the step beyond the halfway point, but I think it’s still more honest than using the word "quality" in this sense.
Do nothing, but stop using it
You know those people who only smoke when they drink? Well, using the quality start is kind of like that. You think it doesn’t matter, but your body is always paying attention. Just because it’s the best option at the time doesn’t mean it’s a good one. Any way you slice it, something stinks.
I’ve found that birdwatching is, against all odds, kinda fun. Maybe give it a shot? Other than that, I'm stumped. Maybe we're stuck with the quality start as it is.