Alexander: No one should be scoffing at quality starts anymore

Here’s the thing about being a visionary: It can take a while for the rest of the world to catch up.

There were titters and guffaws back in 1985 when baseball writer John Lowe, then covering the Phillies for the Philadelphia Inquirer, devised the “quality start” statistic for pitchers: At least six full innings pitched, no more than three earned runs allowed.

The pundits scoffed, noting that those particular numbers translated to a 4.50 earned run average. TV analyst Tim McCarver called it “rubbish.” Some wondered if it wasn’t part of the dumbing down of baseball, since the common wisdom for years was that if you cashed it in after six innings, you were a slacker.

(And never mind that too many complete games and too many innings derailed many a career. Exhibit A: Fernando Valenzuela.)

Do you suppose it’s time to re-emphasize the quality start? Pitching victories have been devalued anyway, and the team with the best bullpen has the best shot at ending up on top. The Angels and Dodgers have both taken that approach, and the starting pitcher who can relieve his bullpen of some of the burden once every five or six days would seem increasingly valuable in an era of “openers” and “bulk pitchers.”

Lowe, who got his start at the Long Beach Press-Telegram (covering minor league hockey) and covered the Angels and Dodgers for the L.A. Daily News before moving to Philly and then the Detroit Free Press, hung ’em up a few years ago and now mentors college journalism students. But he explained his reasoning to former New York Times columnist Murray Chass in a 2011 interview.

The idea: A simple stat that readers could easily understand, which is basic journalism. The more convoluted the statistical formula or the more you have to explain, the quicker the reader moves on to the next story.

The genesis: Nearly four decades ago complete games were already decreasing in frequency, and this was several years before Tony La Russa made Dennis Eckersley a ninth-inning specialist and changed relief pitching forever.

“I was hearing managers saying they were looking for six innings from their pitchers. I heard (the St. Louis Cardinals’) Whitey Herzog say ‘all I want from my pitchers is six good innings,’” Lowe said, describing the math thusly: “Six and two (runs) is too stingy, six and four is too much. … I’m not saying 4.50 (ERA) for a whole year was quality, but would a manager take a pitcher (on a given night) at three in six?”

Consider the history: In 1965, nearly 23% of all starts were complete games (739 of 3,246). A guy with an arthritic elbow, Sandy Koufax, completed 27 of his 41 starts to lead all of baseball – and won a World Series pitching a complete game shutout on two days’ rest – while pitching for a team that couldn’t score a lot.

By 1985, starters went the distance 14.9% of the time, 627 of 4,206 games. (And yes, there were old-school fans grumbling even then that starting pitchers weren’t as tough or as durable as they used to be.) Twenty years later, in 2005, starters completed 3.8% of all games, 189 of 4,862; quality starts, by then a quasi-official statistic, were at 49.2% (2,393).

Last season, the percentage of complete games was roughly 1% (50 of 4,858), and quality starts were 32.4% (1,577). The major league leader in 2021 was Walker Buehler, with 27 in 33 starts. He had no complete games in 2021 – his career high is two, in 2019 – but he was among the best at chewing up innings and getting the ball to the bullpen (207-2/3 innings, second only to Philadelphia’s Zack Wheeler).

Have we been looking at this all wrong, especially in the case of the Angels? All these years when they’ve missed postseason after postseason, it’s been an article of faith that faulty starting pitching has helped waste the prime of Mike Trout’s career. But all along it might have been the bullpen that let them down, because for much of the 2010s they were in the bottom third of the league in saves and in the upper third in blown saves.

So when Manager Joe Maddon suggests that the Angels’ 2022 bullpen (along with an expanded playoff format) might be the key to getting his team back to the postseason, it might not be mere springtime optimism. Signing Noah Syndergaard was a risk worth taking, but spending money on Aaron Loup, Ryan Tepera and Archie Bradley to go with Raisel Iglesias might be more efficient.

Maddon was in Anaheim 20 years ago, when the Angels won the franchise’s only World Series and started a near-decade run of success. The X-factor then was a shutdown bullpen anchored by closer Troy Percival and backed up by Francisco Rodriguez, Scot Shields, Ben Weber and Brendan Donnelly, among others. The starters were OK. The relievers were dominant, and that was a championship formula.

These days, it’s a championship formula throughout baseball.

The Braves had a lights-out bullpen in 2021 and made it better in ’22 by stealing Kenley Jansen from the Dodgers. Julio Urías, Brusdar Graterol and Blake Treinen were key factors in the Dodgers’ 2020 championship run along with Jansen, Joe Kelly, Dylan Floro and Victor Gonzalez. The 2019 Washington Nationals bullpen was considered a weak link, but the Nats rode it to a title behind Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson (and cameos at key points from Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer).

The Dodgers are attempting to reconstruct a championship bullpen, and before Friday they were prepared to go without a specific closer. But by acquiring Craig Kimbrel and his 370 career saves from the White Sox they’ve altered that blueprint. In all likelihood, Manager Dave Roberts will still use his most potent weapon, Treinen, in high-leverage situations whenever they come up.

Meanwhile, the starting rotation appears to be Buehler, Urías, Clayton Kershaw and two days of bulk, at least until Dustin May is ready to return. That’s baseball in the 2020s.

Considering that most of the public heat Roberts gets is because of pitching decisions, and seeing that he went on record earlier this spring and guaranteed his team would win the World Series … well, the more quality starts from the Big Three, the better.

@Jim_Alexander on Twitter