On January 24th, the Baseball Hall of Fame will announce the results of the last round of voting by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. It’s possible, though not likely, that no new contestants will join Fred McGriff on stage. McGriff, the five-time All-Star first baseman, was selected by a veterans’ committee in December.
But the Hall of Fame will honor at least one other person this year: John Lowe. Lowe is a recipient of the BBWAA Career Excellence Award, presented annually to a sportswriter “for meritorious contributions to the writing of baseball.” Lowe covered the Angels and the Dodgers for the Daily News before moving to Philadelphia and then Detroit, where he spent most of his Free Press career.
In 1985, Lowe invented the “Quality Start” statistic. Credited to pitchers who pitch six or more innings while allowing three or fewer earned runs, the formula is so simple by today’s standards as to be crude.
The statistic has endured its share of abuse. Quality starts recognize a pitcher who, by definition, has done the bare minimum—six innings, three earned runs—as much as a pitcher throwing a perfect play. There is a big difference between an ERA of 4.50 and 0.00. Not in the eyes of a quality launch.
But that criticism was truer a generation ago than it is today. Quality launches were way ahead of their time. Lowe’s invention has endured not because pitching is the way it was in 1985, but precisely because it isn’t. The numbers back it up – but you’ll have to put up with me.
It’s no secret that starting pitchers now have a shorter leash than ever before. Our example of the hypothetical perfect pitcher looks particularly hypothetical these days. No pitcher has been perfect since Felix Hernandez mowed down 27 Tampa Bay Rays on August 15, 2012.
Even throwing a no-hitter is no longer a guarantee of a six-inning start. Just ask New York Mets pitcher Tylor Megill, the Los Alamitos High and LMU product that didn’t hit the Philadelphia Phillies for five innings on April 29 last year, only to see four of his teammates finish the task. In fact, of the four no-hitters thrown last season, only one was a full game: that of Angels rookie Reid Detmers on May 10.
How rare is a six-inning start?
In 1985, when Lowe introduced the “quality start,” 64.2% of all starts were six innings or longer. The percentage fluctuated between 60 and 70 each year through 2006. That year—the first in which MLB issued 50-game, 100-game, and lifetime bans for first, second, and third PED violations, respectively—the percentage fell eventually below 60. It soon recovered and hovered between 61 and 66% between 2010 and 2014.
If you’re looking for the year starting pitching died, it’s 2015. Only 58.8% of all starts lasted six innings this season. The percentage has steadily declined since then, down to just 40.5 last season.
The 2015 season was also the last in which the majority of starts (50.6%) were quality starts. Last season, only 36.5% of starts met Lowe’s definition of ‘quality’. So the drop in “quality launch” tells us something meaningful about how games are managed today compared to 1985. It’s not just that there was less emphasis on pitching early on in favor of deep bullpens with powerarms. We already knew that.
Mediocre starting pitchers just can’t pitch six innings anymore. Front office analysts can explain this phenomenon using statistical probabilities and biomechanics. For the rest of us — fans, pundits, even Cy Young Award voters — “quality start” deserves a new pair of eyes.
From 1985 through 2012, the percentage of all six-inning starts that were quality starts ranged from 75% to 84%. It’s been at least 85% every year since then, surpassing 90% in two of the last three seasons. If you don’t throw quality innings as the starting pitcher, you won’t be able to finish the sixth.
Put aside the old-school vs. new-school debate about whether it “should be.” Quality Start now measures something rare enough to be worth paying attention to. It reflects a useful distinction in how managers distinguish between good and bad pitching. That’s the mark of a useful statistic. It’s only fitting that Lowe gets his day at Cooperstown in a year when his enduring creation has also found its moment.
https://www.ocregister.com/2023/01/11/hoornstra-an-appreciation-of-the-quality-start-a-stat-ahead-of-its-time/ Hall of Fame inductee John Lowe’s high-quality starting stats were ahead of his time