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10 Pitchers Who Are a Guaranteed Quality Start

Ely SussmanCorrespondent ISeptember 16, 2013

10 Pitchers Who Are a Guaranteed Quality Start

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    For an MLB fan, there's no sight more comforting than that of a pitcher who's a guaranteed quality start stepping to the mound. This is someone who seemingly always has an adequate performance, thus taking the pressure off his teammates.

    Just to ensure that we're all on the same page, the minimum requirements for a quality start (QS) are six innings pitched and three earned runs. Baseball writer John Lowe, formerly of the Philadelphia Inquirer, gets credit for defining the phrase (ESPN Insider subscription required).

    Although major league run scoring rose during the steroid era, it has since regressed to mid-1980s levels. Lowe coined the phrase in 1985, so the stat is now as applicable as ever. Baseball-Reference.com illustrates this trend (look at R/G).

    The quality start is based on results rather than performance. It cares not about the number of baserunners allowed, pitches used or swings-and-misses generated, but simply whether or not a starter gives acceptable length while preventing the opposition from "breaking the game open."

    Of course, pitchers cannot consistently earn a QS every turn of the rotation without talent. Those included on the following list have plenty of that, and it should come as no surprise that most are past or present Cy Young Award contenders.

     

    *Statistics provided by Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted. Updated through Sept. 11.

Honorable Mentions

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    Matt Harvey

    Matt Harvey has completed quality starts in nearly three-quarters of his career attempts, a success rate unrivaled by anybody on this list. He boasts a 2.39 earned run average and .207 batting average against through two campaigns with the New York Mets.

    However, our objective is to identify pitchers who could take the mound immediately—against any opponent—and deliver an adequate performance in terms of both length and run allowance.

    This 24-year-old doesn't meet the criteria as he's currently in the process of getting doctors' advice about his partially torn ulnar collateral ligament. Marc Carig of Newsday reports that the right-hander will visit with Dr. James Andrews, who's infamous in the baseball world for performing Tommy John surgery. Undergoing the procedure would require Harvey to rehab for a full year and rebuild his arm strength, and there's just no way of knowing if he'd ever return to dominant form.

    The first-time All-Star might've headlined this list at midseason, but the unfortunate development in his elbow understandably changes that.

    Jose Fernandez

    The Miami Marlins decided to shut down rookie ace Jose Fernandez following his Wednesday night outing to ensure he doesn't overexert himself for a team that's hopelessly out of contention.

    His performances will be sorely missed. The Cuban right-hander pulverized major league hitters from June onward, serving up only four home runs in that span (while mashing one himself). Fernandez recorded 16 quality starts over his final 18 trips to the mound, which lowered his earned run average to 2.19, the National League's second-best mark.

    While there's no denying that Fernandez was sensational in 2013, he certainly benefited from the element of surprise. He had no major league experience—in fact, no experience above High-A—prior to this season, so upcoming opponents didn't have much relevant material to use when scouting him.

    Let's see him do this again before getting too carried away.

    Zack Greinke

    Zack Greinke is on an impressive roll of his own—eight consecutive quality starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers. On the other hand, the first half of his summer was extremely inconsistent. Just look at the unacceptable brevity of those early-season performances.

    The last individual season in which Greinke's QS percentage topped 70 was 2009.

    CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander

    Not so long ago, CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander would've been perfect fits for an article that emphasizes reliability.

    Both continue to give their clubs a ton of innings, but significant drops in their velocity and declines in overall effectiveness were impossible to ignore. Sabathia, in particular, has fallen from grace so quickly that few MLB teams would still view him as a rotation ace.

    Matt Cain

    Matt Cain is similarly on the verge of being booted from the pantheon of elite starters considering his career-worst 4.37 earned run average for the San Francisco Giants this summer. Although about 63 percent of his outings have met the quality start requirements, a handful of the exceptions have been catastrophic, including July 10 against the New York Mets when he managed only two outs in the first inning.

    Clay Buchholz

    Clay Buchholz returned to the Boston Red Sox rotation Tuesday night with a rare non-quality start. The right-hander had spent the previous three months on the disabled list, so taking a cautious approach, his team entrusted the game to its bullpen after five brilliant innings.

    Buchholz is undefeated through 13 outings with a 1.61 ERA and 8.8 K/9. Remember, however, that one season ago, while pitching for the same franchise in the same ballpark, he had an ordinary 4.56 ERA and 6.1 K/9.

    The real Buchholz is probably somewhere in the middle.

    Yu Darvish

    Aug. 17, 2012 was a ginormous turning point for Yu Darvish.

    In 35 regular-season starts from then onward, he has an MLB-best 13 double-digit strikeout performances, while never allowing double-digit hits. His quality start percentage in that span? A surreal 77.1 percent, and slightly higher if we're counting his performance in the inaugural American League Wild Card Game.

    Problem is that the old, erratic Darvish—the one who walked the fourth-most batters in the American League last season despite only 29 starts—rears his hideous head from time to time.

    Max Scherzer

    Whether or not you take his win total into consideration, Max Scherzer is enjoying a terrific year. From May to August, he may have been the best pitcher in the entire American League.

    Alas, trimming this list down to 10 individuals meant snubbing the right-hander in favor of starters who have excelled at the major league level for longer periods of time.

Jarrod Parker (Oakland Athletics)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 71.2 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 75.9 percent

    Jarrod Parker is easily the least recognizable of this bunch.

    The casual fan might remember him from Game 5 of the 2012 ALDS. With the Oakland Athletics facing elimination, he was thoroughly outdueled.

    At only 6'1", Parker doesn't fit the traditional profile of a rotation's ace. He has no All-Star experience, and through 59 career regular-season starts, the Indiana native has never finished a game with double-digit strikeouts.

    Now, let's stop being mean.

    The 24-year-old belongs here because he's been unbelievably reliable since an early-season slump. In 22 opportunities since May 11, Parker has delivered 20 quality starts (90.1 percent), and even that stat sells him short. Random hamstring tightness forced him to the showers in the fourth inning on June 29 even though he was taming a tough St. Louis Cardinals lineup.

    If there's anything that sums up Parker's value to the A's, it's this—he hasn't lost a decision in any of his past 19 starts.

     

David Price (Tampa Bay Rays)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 67.1 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 65.2 percent

    It's wrong to ignore any portion of an athlete's season, but context certainly makes a major difference.

    David Price, for example, pitched far below his usual standards this past April and May. He posted a 5.24 earned run average through nine outings with only five quality starts before landing on the disabled list with a strained triceps.

    That must've been an early-season impostor. Price has flaunted a 2.50 earned run average since retuning to the rotation and maintained that thanks to impeccable command (71 percent strikes, eight BB in 104.1 IP).

    In 2012, his quality start percentage of 80.6 helped him sneak past Justin Verlander in American League Cy Young Award voting.

Cliff Lee (Philadelphia Phillies)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 61.7 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 75.0 percent

    Cliff Lee is experiencing more success at age 35 than most of his MLB peers will in their primes.

    The veteran lefty owns a microscopic 1.88 earned run average this September. He has 19 strikeouts in that time compared to only one walk.

    Lee's evolution into a precise pitcher began a half-dozen years ago when the division-leading 2007 Cleveland Indians snubbed him from their playoff roster. The next season, leading the American League in victories, walk rate and adjusted earned run average earned him the Cy Young Award, and he's been a staple atop various rotations since.

    The Arkansas native has a quality start percentage of 72.0 since the beginning of the '08 campaign, plus an even better track record in the postseason. Three of his 11 high-stakes October outings have been complete games. Overall, Lee's postseason career includes a 2.52 earned run average and 89 strikeouts in 82 innings.

    Despite his age, a guaranteed $25 million salary in both 2014 and 2015 doesn't seem so outrageous.

James Shields (Kansas City Royals)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 62.9 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 77.4 percent

    In the eyes of many top analysts, the Kansas City Royals overpaid for James Shields. They relinquished top prospect Wil Myers to complete the exchange last winter, and he's already contributing at the major league level while earning the league's minimum salary.

    However, after countless years of starting pitching struggles, K.C. understood how important it would be to add someone with Shields' durability.

    Big Game James has topped 200 innings pitched in sevens straight seasons (2007-2013). Barring injury, he'll finish the 2013 campaign with more than 220 innings, an arbitrary yet outstanding benchmark that he exceeded in each of the previous two years.

    Shields emerged as a legitimate top-of-the-rotation weapon in 2011. He earned an All-Star selection and finished third in American League Cy Young Award voting. The right-hander totaled 11 complete games, more than any other pitcher has thrown in any summer since then.

    The 31-year-old doesn't allow many baserunners in the first place, but he annually eliminates a few who stray too far off the bag. His 18 pickoffs over the past three seasons are easily the most of any right-hander in baseball.

Cole Hamels (Philadelphia Phillies)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 64.7 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 76.6 percent

    If given the option to call upon any MLB pitcher to start a must-win game, most of us would probably prefer Cliff Lee, James Shields and even a few of this list's honorable mentions over Cole Hamels.

    However, a closer examination of recent history suggests that nobody is a much safer bet than the lanky left-hander.

    Hamels has averaged more than 6.2 innings per start since 2010 with 200-plus total innings pitched in each season. Per Baseball-Reference.com, his 72.8 percent quality start percentage in that span is fifth best in the sport (min. 50 GS) and second only to Clayton Kershaw among National League pitchers.

    There's one bragging point that cannot be taken away from the San Diego native: When he falls short of quality-start standards, it isn't by much.

    Each of Hamels' past 72 outings as a rotation member have been at least five innings. That streak is the longest of its kind among active individuals.

Jered Weaver (Los Angeles Angels)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 67.7 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 68.2 percent

    Under general manager Jerry Dipoto, the Los Angeles Angels have failed miserably in most of their attempts to acquire serviceable pitchers through trades and free agency. No wonder Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reports that his job is in jeopardy.

    Jered Weaver—who agreed to a contract extension several months before Dipoto joined the Halos—spares the starting rotation from total mediocrity.

    His pitching style isn't for everybody. Weaver averaged about 90 miles per hour on the fastball during his first few years in the majors, according to FanGraphs, and now he only reserves that "heat" for special occasions. Aside from 2010, he's never finished with more than 200 strikeouts in a season.

    As previously stated, however, our emphasis is on effectiveness rather than pizazz.

    Weaver thrives with his pedestrian repertoire thanks to pinpoint location. He expertly avoids the sweet spot of an opponent's bat by hammering the edges of the strike zone. That has been the key to him maintaining a lifetime .273 BABIP (MLB average from 2006-2013 is .299). The long-haired right-hander also ranks in the top 10 among active players in career WHIP, ERA and ERA+.

    Since 2009, the only American League pitcher with more complete-game shutouts than Weaver's six is Felix Hernandez (h/t FanGraphs).

Adam Wainwright (St. Louis Cardinals)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 68.5 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 76.7 percent

    Like so many other pitchers who have gone under the knife, Adam Wainwright wasn't quite himself when initially returning to action following Tommy John surgery.

    The right-hander's velocity was fine, but he had difficulty throwing quality strikes (e.g. "painting the corners"). St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny babied Wainwright a bit, more often than not removing him from starts before reaching 100 total pitches. All in all, the opposition batted .259/.309/.392 against him, which culminated in an ordinary 3.94 earned run average.

    Of course, anybody who saw Wainwright prior to his absence or has had the privilege of witnessing some of his 2013 rebound knows that descriptors like "ordinary" don't suit him.

    He used to challenge for the National League lead in strikeout-to-walk ratio, and now he's practically a lock to finish No. 1 (195/31 K/BB). The 32-year-old occasionally gets roughed up, but he never spirals into a significant slump, as his Baseball-Reference.com game log reveals.

    Bleacher Report's Zachary Rymer gushed about Wainwright's curveball and its "incredible two-plane break."

Chris Sale (Chicago White Sox)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 73.2 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 81.5 percent

    A mere month and a half after signing with the Chicago White Sox as their 2010 first-round draft pick, Chris Sale was already contributing on their major league roster.

    From there, the progression has been relatively smooth.

    Following a full season as one of Chicago's late-inning relievers, he was stretched out for starting duty. Sale's debut in the starting rotation resulted in a sixth-place finish in AL Cy Young Award voting (3.05 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 192 K in 192.0 IP). He has since reduced his walk rate while providing more innings, thus better positioning himself for the league's highest honor.

    Sale pitches from an unusually low arm angle, and a wiry 6'6" frame allows him to get relatively close to home plate before releasing the ball.

    These oddities make him a nightmare for left-handed batters. It's surprising that those poor souls even get out of bed on days when he's scheduled to pitch.

    As a 23-year-old in 2012, he limited lefties to a .601 OPS and yielded only two home runs in 205 plate appearances against them. In 2013, Sale has them floundering for a .361 OPS, more specifically a .136/.204/.157 batting line with 45 strikeouts in 154 plate appearances.

    Baseball-Reference.com doesn't have complete data prior to 1916, but in the near-century of Major League Baseball played since then, Sale's career quality start percentage is the best all time among pitchers with multiple starts.

Felix Hernandez (Seattle Mariners)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 67.0 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 72.4 percent

    This Felix Hernandez/Randy Johnson comparison found that the two Seattle Mariners legends were surprisingly similar in terms of overall effectiveness. King Felix actually has a slight edge when you consider how regularly he gives his team the opportunity to win.

    When the M's unleashed a teenage Hernandez on the unsuspecting American League, he used mid-to-high 90s heat to thrive. Perennial 200-inning workloads have gradually reduced his velocity, but you wouldn't know it from the All-Star caliber results. Seattle's rotation leader has actually set a new career best with 9.3 K/9 in 2013 thanks to heavier use of his changeup.

    Although the franchise hasn't qualified for the playoffs since Hernandez debuted, he's done everything in his power to get their seasons started on a positive note. According to Baseball-Reference.com, his 2.57 earned run average in March/April is among the lowest ever.

    You don't put yourself on a Hall of Fame track without an addiction to competition. Hernandez is showing his by trying to pitch through an oblique strain.

Clayton Kershaw (Los Angeles Dodgers)

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    Career Quality Start Percentage: 67.6 percent

    Quality Start Percentage in 2013: 80.0 percent

    Plenty of future superstars are still trying to "figure it out" at age 25.

    Cliff Lee posted a 5.43 ERA and 4.1 BB/9 as a 25-year-old. Justin Verlander pitched 201 sloppy innings, his 87 free passes to blame for a 1.40 WHIP.

    Clayton Kershaw's ascent to greatness, on the other hand, has been much more direct.

    The southpaw is about to sew up his second National League Cy Young Award and third consecutive NL ERA title. He even has an outside shot at winning the pitcher's Triple Crown in the Senior Circuit (ranking first in wins, earned run average and strikeouts).

    This year's gaudy quality start percentage doesn't deviate much from Kershaw's recent history. He finished at 71.9 percent in 2010, and bumped up to 75.8 percent in both 2011 and 2012.

    Kershaw has completed five-plus frames in 62 consecutive starts, a streak that would dwarf Cole Hamels' if not for an Opening Day bout with a nasty stomach flu. The last time he exited prematurely due to sheer ineffectiveness was April 16, 2011. Mike Trout had just been promoted to Double-A and Osama bin Laden was still alive.

    Under any interpretation of the phrase, Kershaw is baseball's quintessential quality starter.

     

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