'Quality start' needs a new, improved spin


June 27, 1994|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Sun Staff Writer

This is an ideal time for the Orioles to adopt a new guideline for one of baseball's trendy statistics.

For the next four games, and indeed for the rest of whatever is left of this strike-threatened season, the starting pitcher's role will take on added significance. That may require redefining the term "quality start."

Mere statistics won't be enough for the Orioles to beat the Cleveland Indians -- or challenge for the American League East title. The only accurate guideline will be the scoreboard.

The usually accepted definition of "quality start" calls for at least six innings, with no more than three earned runs. With due respect to colleague John Lowe, the Detroit Free Press baseball guru who established the unofficial equation, an important element is missing.

Three earned runs in six innings is, after all, the equivalent of a 4.50 ERA. Nowhere is there a mention of the score when the starter departs, which would seem to be a significant omission.

The "quality start" has, in turn, created other acceptable phrases of the trade. "He kept us in the game." "He got us into the seventh inning." "He gave us a chance to win."

What about: "He kept us ahead." Or: "He kept us from falling behind." Isn't that what a quality start is really all about?

While the number of runs allowed is generally a good indication of a pitcher's overall effectiveness, it doesn't always reflect the quality of the performance. Who has done the better job: a pitcher who leaves trailing 3-2 or one with a 5-4 lead?

Just as the game situation dictates strategy, it also gives a truer indication of a pitcher's effort. Everybody wants the guy who can win 1-0 or 2-1, but the good ones also can find a way to win 6-5. Those are the games where the ERA gets discarded in the statistical heap and wins are separated from no-decisions.

To beat a team like the Indians, more often than not it is necessary to find a way to win despite giving up four, five or more runs. You have to stay out of your bullpen in the early innings while also scoring.

For starters it is more important to last long enough to assist in an "ugly win" than it is to strive for a so-called "quality start." Sometimes, it's necessary to limit a team to one run, as Mike Oquist and Jamie Moyer had to do in the first two games and Mike Mussina did last night against the Toronto Blue Jays, for a true "quality start."

But there are times it can be accomplished with less statistical merit -- and you don't need a formula to figure it out.

All you have to do is look at the scoreboard.

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