MLB Handicapping: Expert Baseball Handicapper Explains Quality Start Pitching Stat
by Robert Ferringo - 4/22/2016
Quality means different things to different people. Some people think you can get a quality steak at Applebees. Yet for others, anything less than the bone-in rib eye at American Cut is dog food. Quality, like most human experience, is subjective.
Or is it? Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? Or is quality truly in inherent characteristic of an object, objectively based in reality and independent of individual perspectives?
Baseball cares not of subjectivity. It is a mathematical construct. And a quality start in a baseball game is a most decidedly objective statistic. A quality start is defined as a game in which the pitcher completes at least six innings while allowing three runs or less. This statistic, whose creation is credited to sportswriter John Lowe in 1985, has been used for over three decades as a kind of demarcation line for determining whether or not a starting pitcher has, essentially, done his job.
This stat has very clear-cut values attached to it. But that still doesn't mean that all quality starts are created equal. Jake Arrieta's no-hitter in a 16-0 win against the Reds on April 21 can't possibly be judged the same as, say, San Francisco's Johnny Cueto's start the same day. Cueto gave up three runs on eight hits in seven innings in a game that the Giants lost 6-2. However, according to the definition of a quality start, those outings are judged similarly.
For instance, the Baltimore Orioles have the fewest number of quality starts in baseball with just three. They have been the most profitable team in baseball through the first three weeks and they have the best record in the American League.
Further, three of the top eight teams in baseball in quality starts have failed to turn a profit this season. And last year three of the top five leaders in quality starts - the White Sox, Dodgers and Astros - failed to turn a profit during the regular season. So no, on the whole this stat isn't a cure-all.
That said, quality starts are obviously preferable to, well, non-quality starts. And while three of the top eight haven't turned a profit so far this season, seven of the top 10 this year have. And Baltimore is on the only one of the bottom eight teams that has turned a profit so far this season.
Looking at team correlations between profit and number of quality starts might be a little too macro. Bettors aren't going to make too many daily decisions based on overall quality start statistics. So is there any stronger correlation when we look at individual pitchers?
Granted, I haven't done exhaustive research on this - which would require at least 20 years of data. But the preliminary indications are that quality starts do have a strong correlation to profitability. (Although there are problems, which we'll get to.)
Last year's most profitable starter, Jake Arrieta, was No. 2 in the Majors in quality starts. Gerrit Cole, Dallas Keuchel, Zach Greinke and David Price were all in the Top 15 in both categories. Conversely, it is pretty easy to draw a line between pitchers (with at least 100 innings of work) that produced the fewest quality starts and those that were the least profitable in the Majors. Eight of the 10 pitchers with the fewest quality starts, and at least 100 innings pitched, failed to turn a profit last year.
There are outliers every season. Kansas City's Chris Young and Chicago's Travis Wood were moneymakers despite a dearth of quality outings. Atlanta's Shelby Miller and Jose Quintana were prime examples on the other side, burning money for backers despite having very strong seasons overall.
Besides the high number of outliers like Wood and Quintana, the biggest problem for turning quality starts into a money stat for baseball bettor is pretty obvious: the best pitchers should throw the most quality starts. That is, by definition, what makes them the best starting pitchers. The books know who the best starters are and they jack up the moneyline prices on them, sucking out the value and making it harder to turn a long-term profit.
Take Clayton Kershaw, for example. Everyone knows he is one of the best pitchers in baseball. And over the last 100 years of baseball no pitcher, anywhere, ever, has a higher percentage of quality starts than Kershaw's 70.8 percent (148 of 209 starts were quality). The Dodgers went 20-13 in Kershaw's starts last season and he was No. 3 in the Majors in quality starts with 27. But anyone that bet $100 on every Kershaw start would've actually lost $600 on the season.
Finally, you can't really predict when a quality start is coming. If you could, betting would be easy, everyone would get a pony, and the world would be nothing but ice cream and rainbows! It doesn't work like that. There is an incredible amount of variables that are in play when it comes to predicting anyone game.
If you are still looking for a way to incorporate this statistic in your handicapping repertoire, my advice would be to work backwards. Instead of trying to predict a quality start or grind out small profits on the top MLB pitchers that produce the most quality starts, use the stat as an indicator.
Just like it is easy to find the best pitchers it isn't very hard to find the worst. So if some fourth or fifth starter goes out there and hurls seven innings of four-hit ball, giving up just one run, then that starter is likely to regress to the mean and get beat-up in their next outing. When a guy like Colorado's Jordan Lyles (24-39 career win-loss and a 5.12 career ERA) goes out and throws a quality start you should look to bet against him in his next outing. In this particular case, Lyles is 4-10 in his last 14 starts following a quality start.
(Lyles is coming off seven shutout innings in his last start. He will take the mound Sunday against the Dodgers.)
So whether you believe that quality is a subjective description unique to every individual or an objective benchmark that relies on the individual to acknowledge I think there are two things that we can all agree on. First, quality starts is an imperfect stat for predicting baseball profitability. And second, Jordan Lyles sucks.
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