By Bruce Miles
The Daily Herald
There weren’t many situations where the 2012 Cubs came up winners.
A team that had a win-loss record of 61-101 was 11 games above .500 when its starting pitcher turned in a quality start.
Much maligned for years – mostly because it’s been misunderstood – the quality start is now earning a seat at the adult table when baseball is being discussed seriously.
Managers talk about getting quality starts, and you can find the quality-start leaders on most of your favorite stat sites.
The reason? You get a quality start, you usually win. You don’t, and you’re likely to lose.
Let’s take a look quick look backward before jumping ahead to the present. The 2012 Cubs had a record of 42-31 when their starting pitcher turned in a quality start. In those games, the starter had an ERA of 1.83. When the Cubs didn’t get a quality start last year, they were a dismal 19-70, and the starters had an ERA of 7.62 in those games.
What’s that, you say? Isn’t a quality start six innings and three earned runs, for an ERA of 4.50? Sometimes yes, but most of the time, it’s a resounding no, and here is where we get into the importance, if not the beauty (and we’ll get into that in a minute), of the quality start.
For years, I’ve studied quality starts on the Cubs and written about them in the Daily Herald. What got me started was hearing critics of the quality start deride it by focusing solely on the 4.50 ERA. But as I’ve discussed with TV broadcaster Len Kasper for these many years is that the six innings and three earned runs represent only the baseline for the quality start. Admittedly, that’s where the lack of “beauty” in the stat comes in. Like all baseball stats, the quality start isn’t perfect. It’s a bit unfair that a pitcher who works six innings and gives up three earned runs is credited with a quality start while the guy who tosses a nine-inning complete-game victory and gives up four earned runs is not. But both of these scenarios are exceptions.
The fact is, most quality starts are much better than the six-and-three baseline. Let’s fast-forward to today. The Cubs entered this weekend’s series against the Mets with 24 quality starts and 16 non-quality starts. In the quality-start games, the team was 15-9 and the starters had an ERA of 1.92. In the non-quality-start games, the Cubs were 2-14, and the ERA of the starters was 6.80.
The team won-loss record surely would have been better in the quality-start games if not for some bullpen blowups, a lack of timely hitting or some bad defense. And sometimes, the other team’s guy just outpitches your guy.
Only one of the quality starts was a minimum-requirement quality start: a six-inning, three-run outing by Edwin Jackson on April 25. All the rest were better, including Jeff Samardzija’s eight-inning shutout performance on Opening Day, Carlos Villanueva’s 7.1-inning scoreless outing on April 12 and seven-inning scoreless games by Scott Feldman on May 6 and Travis Wood on May 13. Feldman has the Cubs’ only a complete game, a nine-inning, two-run performance on May 1.
Perhaps now we should take a minute and thank Wood for giving us a perfect quality-start canvass from which to work. Wood has opened the season with eight straight quality starts, becoming the second Cubs lefty to record eight straight quality starts to open a season since the Cubs moved to Wrigley Field, joining Hippo Vaughn, who did it in 1919. Now, I’m sure Ol’ Hippo didn’t refer to his performances as “quality starts” back in the day. Heck, I’m sure he didn’t say “back in the day,” either.
But since Wood went 8-for-8 in quality starts, his entire record to date encompasses nothing but quality starts. His record is 4-2, and his ERA is a tidy 2.03, almost two-and-a-half runs better than the minimum requirement for quality starts.
So the bottom line, at least for me, is this: Do you want a quality start or not, even given its imperfections? The answer should be a resounding yes. So let’s continue this trend of increasing respect for this stat.
Here’s the other thing. I hear every once in awhile that Bob Gibson and Fergie Jenkins and Jim Palmer and Don Drysdale would have been appalled at the notion of going “only” six innings could get you a quality start. That’s right. But guess what? Those guys aren’t pitching today, and the game has changed in so many ways, some good and some bad, since Gibby, Fergie and the rest were on the mound.
In closing, we’ll once again cite colleague John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press, who is credited for “inventing” the quality start. John rightly points out that a pitcher can pitch poorly and get credit for a victory. He can pitch poorly and get credit for a save (we’ve seen that). But it’s awfully hard, and it rarely happens, that a pitcher pitches poorly and gets credit for a quality start.
Follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceMiles2112 and check out his blog at the Daily Herald - Chicago’s Inside Pitch.