Baseball's Quality Start: An In-Depth Look at Redefining its Relevance


By Wayne G. McDonnell, Jr., M.B.A., Clinical Associate Professor
The Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management
NYU School of Continuing and Professional Studies (NYU-SCPS)

July 25, 2011

Complete games are rarely seen today in baseball; in fact, they have become virtually nonexistent. The last time a Major League pitcher threw more than 10 complete games in a season was in 1999 when Arizona Diamondback pitcher Randy Johnson pitched 12 complete games en route to his first of four consecutive Cy Young Awards. Pitch counts and inning limits have redefined the role of the starting pitcher as franchises vigilantly manage the balance between the compensation and the health and well-being of their star players. 

In light of the demise of the complete game as a defining measurement of a pitcher’s endurance and productivity, a different pitching statistic must be employed to assess these qualities. The “quality start,” a statistic that was introduced by sports writer John Lowe in 1985, may be the answer for gauging a starting pitcher’s consistency and level of endurance. Lowe defined a quality start as a game in which the pitcher completes six innings and allows no more than three earned runs. 

Hall of Fame pitcher Nolan Ryan, who is an outspoken critic on the current state of affairs in baseball regarding pitching, is on a mission to change the definition of Lowe’s quality start. Ryan proposes using the completion of seven innings and permitting three or less earned runs as the new measurement. With the change of one inning, the elementary metric to measure a pitcher’s minimum ERA drops from 4.50 to 3.86. 

To confirm the benefits and the accuracy of Nolan Ryan’s innovative idea to redefine the classification of a quality start, it is imperative to conduct a quantitative study that examines starting pitchers over a predetermined period of time. This study includes every pitcher that has started a ball game over the past three seasons. Eligible participants include traditional starting pitchers, relief pitchers occasionally required to start, minor league call-ups, and relief pitchers who were temporarily starting pitchers and vice versa. 

By looking at the top five pitchers in quality starts from 2008-2010, the difference between the two definitions becomes evident:

Most quality starts from 2008-2010 (John Lowe’s definition)
Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners—78
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants—74
CC Sabathia, New York Yankees—72
Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies—70 
Zack Greinke, Milwaukee Brewers—70

Most quality starts from 2008-2010 (Nolan Ryan’s definition)
CC Sabathia, New York Yankees—63
Roy Halladay, Philadelphia Phillies—62
Felix Hernandez, Seattle Mariners—60
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants—59 
Cliff Lee, Philadelphia Phillies—54

Under the current definition of a quality start, the statistic has been rendered irrelevant due to the emergence of pitch counts and innings limits. Unfortunately, the quality start statistic has become synonymous with mediocrity and lacks the potency it once had to clearly identify performances worthy of distinction by starting pitchers. If minor revisions are made, quality starts could once again become an invaluable instrument of measurement. Pitch counts, innings pitched, and earned runs should be included in a newly created formula called the “Quality Start Factor,” thus providing a truly comprehensive measurement of a pitcher’s performance.  

The exact formula for and examples of the “Quality Start Factor” statistic as applied to current MLB pitchers’ records are available in podcast form. The podcast, which was developed by NYU-SCPS Tisch Center Clinical Associate Professor Wayne McDonnell, includes his research and analyses on the topic, which was originally addressed and presented at the 23rd Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture. The Symposium took place on Thursday, June 2, 2011. The full podcast is available for download at

EDITORS: To interview Wayne McDonnell about this research or for more information, please contact Cheryl Feliciano at or 212-922-9103 or Charlotte Hammond at or 212-329-1406. 

About the author
Wayne McDonnell, Jr., B.B.A., M.B.A. 
Clinical Associate Professor of Sports Management, NYU-SCPS Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management

Wayne McDonnell, Jr. began his career in sports business at Madison Square Garden (MSG), working as a financial analyst and accountant on various projects and initiatives for MSG and Radio City Music Hall.  Prior to becoming a faculty member at NYU-SCPS, McDonnell also worked as a financial analyst with Marsh & McLennan Companies and taught at Iona College’s Hagan School of Business.

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