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September 4, 2007

Prospectus Hit and Run

Starter Stats

by Jay Jaffe

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From the You Learn Something New Every Day files... I'm not sure how many times over the years that I've referred to the quality start stat as a Bill James invention. Apparently, I'm mistaken. Coming across an old Rob Neyer column behind ESPN's subscription wall the other day, I was clued into the fact that the stat was defined by John Lowe of the Philadelphia Inquirer (now of the Detroit Free Press). James helped spread it to the masses via his Baseball Abstract series, which is where I first encountered it, but in this instance, he's overshadowed somebody else's worthy contribution. My apologies to Mr. Lowe for any failure to properly credit him in the past and to my readers for spreading such misinformation. Score that E-6.

As defined by Lowe, a quality start is one in which a pitcher goes at least six innings and allows no more than three earned runs. It's a simple and elegant stat that suggests a pitcher did a reasonable job of keeping his team in the ballgame. And while it's possible for a pitcher to earn a quality start with a game ERA of 4.50, such instances are rare. In the aforementioned ESPN column, Neyer found that in 2005, the average quality start featured a game ERA of 2.04, a non-quality start 7.70--that's not a misprint, it's Boeing's next jet--and the 6 inning/3 earned run/4.50 case constituted just 9.2 percent of all quality starts.

Based on this year's numbers, a team getting a quality start wins 68.0 percent of the time, on par with the 67.4 percent Neyer reported based on 1985 and 2005 data. Let's take a look at the leaderboard, with teams ranked by total number of quality starts:


Team Tot    W    L   Win%
NYN   77   59   18   .766
SDN   77   52   25   .675
CLE   76   54   22   .711
OAK   73   49   24   .671
ANA   72   56   16   .778
BOS   71   52   19   .732
TOR   70   50   20   .714
ARI   70   49   21   .700
HOU   69   44   25   .638
CHN   68   50   18   .735
ATL   67   49   18   .731
MIN   67   47   20   .701
SFN   67   42   25   .627
BAL   67   39   28   .582
CHA   66   42   24   .636
COL   65   45   20   .692
PHI   63   46   17   .730
PIT   63   42   21   .667
NYA   62   48   14   .774
LAN   61   48   13   .787
CIN   61   38   23   .623
MIL   60   41   19   .683
SLN   58   45   13   .776
DET   56   42   14   .750
TBA   56   36   20   .643
SEA   55   43   12   .782
KCA   55   39   16   .709
WAS   51   29   22   .569
FLO   44   29   15   .659
TEX   43   28   15   .651

The five top-ranked teams all play in parks that favor pitchers, presumably boosting their total number of quality starts. But if we compare this to the adjusted-for-everything metric SNLVAR (Support Neutral Lineup Adjusted Value Above Replacement, explained simply and clearly by Derek Jacques here if you need a refresher) on a team-wide basis, we find a very strong correlation (r = .87) between the two. In other words, they're telling pretty much us the same thing.

A quick look at the individual leaderboards for SNLVAR and Quality Starts (the latter compiled via the highly-recommended Baseball-Reference.com Play Index feature) confirms this. Between the two lists, we finds a high degree of redundancy, with players very closely bunched together on each:


Pitcher           Team SNLVAR     Pitcher           Team   QS
Jake Peavy         SDN   8.0      Danny Haren        OAK   25
Tim Hudson         ATL   6.7      Jake Peavy         SDN   24
Brad Penny         LAN   6.5      Brad Penny         LAN   23
Kelvim Escobar     ANA   6.3      John Smoltz        ATL   22
Brandon Webb       ARI   6.2      Fausto Carmona     CLE   21
Erik Bedard        BAL   6.0      Erik Bedard        BAL   21
Johan Santana      MIN   5.9      C.C. Sabathia      CLE   21
Roy Oswalt         HOU   5.8      Tim Hudson         ATL   21
Dan Haren          OAK   5.8      Tom Glavine        NYN   21
Chris Young        SDN   5.8      Johan Santana      MIN   20
John Smoltz        ATL   5.6      Kelvim Escobar     ANA   19
Aaron Harang       CIN   5.4      Mark Buehrle       CHA   19
Fausto Carmona     CLE   5.4      John Lackey        ANA   19
Mark Buehrle       CHA   5.4      Roy Oswalt         HOU   19
Matt Cain          SFN   5.3      Andy Pettitte      NYA   19
Roy Halladay       TOR   5.3      Matt Cain          SFN   18
Tom Glavine        NYN   5.2      Doug Davis         ARI   18
C.C. Sabathia      CLE   5.2      Gil Meche          KCA   18
Joe Blanton        OAK   5.2      Bronson Arroyo     CIN   18
John Lackey        ANA   5.1      Brandon Webb       ARI   18
Andy Pettitte      NYA   5.1      Orlando Hernandez  NYN   17
Josh Beckett       BOS   5.0      Roy Halladay       TOR   17
Adam Wainwright    SLN   5.0      Braden Looper      SLN   17
John Maine         NYN   5.0      Justin Verlander   DET   17
Greg Maddux        SDN   4.9      Daisuke Matsuzaka  BOS   17
Chien-ming Wang    NYA   4.9      Tom Gorzelanny     PIT   17
James Shields      TBA   4.9      Adam Wainwright    SLN   17
Daisuke Matsuzaka  BOS   4.9      Ian Snell          PIT   17
Tom Gorzelanny     PIT   4.8      James Shields      TBA   17
Brian Bannister    KCA   4.8      Livan Hernandez    ARI   17
Orlando Hernandez  NYN   4.7      Aaron Harang       CIN   17
Justin Verlander   DET   4.5      Joe Blanton        OAK   17

Through Sunday, Haren and Peavy have just four non-quality starts apiece, Penny and Smoltz five, Carmona six, and Bedard and Escobar seven. That's at least a 75 percent rate of quality starts for each hurler, quite impressive--so much so that these pitchers probably belong in any Cy Young Award discussion, though at least on the NL side, Peavy's dominance on the SNLVAR list suggests he stands head and shoulders above the other candidates.

The pitchers on the SNLVAR list who aren't on the quality start list didn't miss by much; Beckett, Maddux, and Wang have 16 through Sunday, Maine and Young 15, and Bannister 14. Of the pitchers on the quality start list but not on the SNLVAR one, Meche, Looper, Davis, and Snell are all within one win of 30th-ranked Bannister; only Arroyo and Livan Hernandez are significantly further down the list.

As a metric, SNLVAR certainly has its advantages over quality starts. It adjusts for ballpark and opposition strength, strips out things a pitcher can't control like run support and bullpen support, and expresses the result in wins above replacement level. For my money, it's the best metric in the BP toolbox with which to measure starting pitchers, and as such, I use it every week in the Hit List, along with its bullpen sibling, WXRL. However, you can't eyeball SNLVAR over a cup of coffee and a page full of box scores, nor can you impress mixed company with such an unwieldy acronym, one which brings to mind that old Serak the Preparer line: "To pronounce it correctly, I would have to pull out your tongue." The humble quality start is perfect for just such occasions.

Then again, the quality start metric does lack the zazz we at BP like to apply to things, so it's worth passing along a little tidbit from Keith Woolner: our Support Neutral family can provide a sophisticated approximation of quality start rate if we untether ourselves from replacement level and turn towards league average via the per-game stat SNLVA_R (Support Neutral Lineup-adjusted Value Added Rate). Simply put, a pitcher's SNLVA_R + 0.5 is the percentage of the time his team would win a game given average offense and bullpen support. So for Jake Peavy, who's got an SNLVA of 5.3 in 28 starts and thus an SNLVA_R of .189, his team can be expected to win at a .689 clip. That's tops among pitchers with 100 or more innings this season. We'll close with that leaderboard:


Pitcher           Team   Rate
Jake Peavy         SDN   .689
Kelvim Escobar     ANA   .645
Chris Young        SDN   .644
Brad Penny         LAN   .637
Tim Hudson         ATL   .636
Erik Bedard        BAL   .619
Brandon Webb       ARI   .618
Johan Santana      MIN   .614
Roy Oswalt         HOU   .612
John Smoltz        ATL   .611
Brian Bannister    KCA   .609
Orlando Hernandez  NYN   .607
Ben Sheets         MIL   .605
Fausto Carmona     CLE   .605
Josh Beckett       BOS   .604
Roy Halladay       TOR   .603
Dan Haren          OAK   .603
Chad Billingsley   LAN   .602
Mark Buehrle       CHA   .602
Matt Cain          SFN   .601
Chien-ming Wang    NYA   .600
Aaron Harang       CIN   .597
Jeremy Guthrie     BAL   .597
Shaun Marcum       TOR   .596
Adam Wainwright    SLN   .588
John Maine         NYN   .586
John Lackey        ANA   .585
Daisuke Matsuzaka  BOS   .584
C.C. Sabathia      CLE   .584
Tom Glavine        NYN   .581

Again, Peavy dominates the NL, while Escobar opens up a nice cushion in the AL. At the very least, that's something to clip and save for you next Cy Young argument.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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