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Quality Starts

   by Bryan Leonard - 07/25/2011


One area I pay attention to when analyzing baseball games is quality starts. Sometimes a pitcher may have a rather high ERA, but that's not all that uncommon today. With expansion over the last decade, starting pitching has become thin and the rarest of commodities. Yes, you will find lousy pitchers throwing in the big leagues simply because there aren't enough good starting arms, but you will also find guys who give their teams consistent quality starts even if their ERA might be higher than normal. With the trading deadline approaching you will see a scramble for pitching first.
Certainly Colorado and Philly pitchers have to be looked at differently. Most pitchers on those staffs give up hits and home runs because they play in hitter-friendly parks, which is why it's important to break down home/road starts for their pitchers. In particular, a quality start in Coors Field is a pitcher who can go 6-7 innings without walking many batters. This is true in other homer-happy parks, too, such as Milwaukee, Fenway, Toronto and Cincinnati.
A few years ago I recall retread starters like Dave Burba and John Burkett not having pretty overall numbers, but they pitched better when you examined each start - and their team got more wins - than you might at first think. Some starters will have one or two really bad starts that inflate their ERA, but have a whole string of quality starts.
The Twins are interesting in that their pitchers lead the majors in fewest walks allowed. It's part of their organizational philosophy, which is smart. A lot of their pitchers may allow a lot more hits than usual, but notice how few walks they allow. When examining the Twins' pitchers, it's important to look at base runners allowed, rather than hits allowed.
Boston starter Josh Beckett had an unusual start to his American League career in 2006, with some quality starts and some real bad ones. He was too erratic while trying to get accustomed to the new league. Being a name pitcher, he didn't offer any value, either. But in 2007 he was under-the-radar a bit because of his somewhat disappointing 2006 season and all the fanfare surrounding teammates Curt Schilling (his walk season) and newcomer Daisuke Matzusaka. Beckett quietly had a brilliant season, loaded with quality starts, and finished as the only 20-game winner. He was 18-to-1 to lead the majors in wins that season.
Of course, Beckett is a name pitcher and it's smarter from a betting perspective to look for quality starts by lesser known guys. Cleveland's then 23-year old righty Fausto Carmona fit that bill in 2007 when the Indians threw him into the rotation. Starting on April 24th, the Indians went 8-1 in his nine starts, with 8 quality starts. He pitched 6 innings or more in every one of them and at least 7 innings in 7 of them.
Last season, the Padres have impressed with a slew of relatively unknown young arms, as have the Blue Jays and the Twins, getting a bounce back season from Francisco Liriano. I'm more interested in the more recent starts where a guy is throwing well, as opposed to earlier games in the season where he might have struggled.
Even the great pitchers have bad games where they get knocked around, and you can't predict when those clunkers will happen. Which is why it's more important to look at the mixture of overall quality starts to bad starts when deciding to wager on or against a starter. And there are plenty of quality starts by little known starting pitchers than you might think.

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