- Eric Karabell, ESPN.com Senior Writer
Try not to overrate pitcher wins. We preach this constantly, noting that wins are often not reflective of a pitcher's performance, and we can provide ample proof of this by looking at, among other examples, the five wins earned by Ricky Nolasco, Matt Harrison and Ubaldo Jimenez, and the misleading 4-2 mark for Boston Red Sox right-hander Clay Buchholz, who is dead last among 117 qualifiers in ERA, with a 7.84 mark (to go with a 1.91 WHIP). All that said, you must look at pitcher wins to some degree because for 99 percent of you, it's one of the five pitching categories deciding your team's season.
I participate in a league that rewards quality starts as opposed to victories, and I have to say it's far more interesting -- and rewarding -- to me. You see it on Twitter or message boards all the time when some closer like Heath Bell routinely blows a three-run lead in the ninth inning and the deserving starting pitcher is left with a no-decision, which many fantasy owners view as a fail in terms of his fantasy performance. That's not really the case; good innings are worth quite a bit, and the strikeouts don't go away. Wins just aren't predictive, and in many cases, they're not fairly distributed, either.
The quality-starts statistic is hardly perfect, but at least it's a way to enjoy a pitcher's value irrespective of how his bullpen mates perform (inherited runners notwithstanding, of course). That's why I like it. Buchholz has just one quality start this season, and even in that game, he allowed four runs, but only three were earned. That's technically a quality start, but really it wasn't!
Miami Marlins right-hander Anibal Sanchez, however, enters his Thursday home outing against the San Francisco Giants with eight quality starts in eight appearances; he's the only qualified starting pitcher with 100 percent QS rate. Sanchez ranks only 26th on the ESPN Player Rater among starting pitchers because he has won a mere two of these games, but in each and every outing, he has managed to pitch six or more innings (he has precisely seven innings in his past six outings) and has yet to allow more than three runs in any game. He boasts a 2.32 ERA, 1.07 WHIP and is on pace for 203 strikeouts. And he has won twice.
Colleague Tristan H. Cockcroft wrote a timely article about starting pitchers who were frustrating to own earlier this week, and he featured Max Scherzer and his awful ERA and WHIP. He's right; Scherzer is frustrating to own. Brandon Morrow has been that way for years. Scherzer has three wins this season but also has loads of strikeouts. It's frustrating he's not more consistent, not helping in ERA and WHIP. Well, it can be just as frustrating when someone continually pitches well but doesn't win ... unless your league uses quality starts, in which case you're rewarded for a strong outing regardless. You're not hoping an erratic closer such as Henry Rodriguez has some semblance of command that night to protect an Edwin Jackson win (he has won just once in nine outings). The quality start has been assured.
Of course, even then the statistic has a loophole; Detroit Tigers fantasy monster Justin Verlander has seven quality starts in nine outings. He allowed five runs (four earned) in an appearance at Yankee Stadium, but on April 11, Verlander took a one-hit shutout into the ninth inning against the Tampa Bay Rays. Verlander's bullpen had cost him an Opening Day win, which probably played a role as he was entrusted to finish this game with a 2-0 lead. Instead, Verlander allowed four runs to blow the win and the quality start. In truth, though, he left with the score tied 2-2, but pals Daniel Schlereth and Jose Valverde permitted the other two runs. Verlander lost. Had he been removed after eight innings, that would have been a quality start. And then it wasn't.
OK, so the stat isn't perfect! Still, it's far more reflective of performance than wins, which is why I prefer it. Sanchez ranks 113th of 117 qualified starting pitchers in run support, with 3.81 runs per game, according to ESPN's figures. Only Ryan Dempster, Dan Haren, Edinson Volquez and Ervin Santana are receiving less support. This is not surprising. Santana recently had a stretch in which his Los Angeles Angels literally did not score -- even after he was removed from the game -- in five consecutive starts! Santana threw quality starts in only two of those games, but now he has five consecutive quality starts. Of course life isn't always fair; in the 18 combined starts for Santana and Haren, the Angels have scored 36 runs, two per game. In Jered Weaver's 10 starts, they've scored 57 runs! Wow.
Dempster remains winless in seven starts despite a 2.28 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. Haren was shut out by the same 5-0 score in three consecutive starts recently. Who leads in run support? Of course, it's Buchholz, at 12.22, and in second place is his teammate Felix Doubront! Run support varies from pitcher to pitcher. Sanchez's teammate Josh Johnson and Nolasco are among the top 50 in the category. Sanchez is just the unlucky one.
New York Mets knuckleballer R.A. Dickey is tied with Sanchez and seven others with eight quality starts this season, and I don't see an end in sight for either fellow. Dickey has won six games, and he has been plenty deserving of them. A year ago, Dickey won a mere eight of his 32 starts despite a strong 3.28 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. He registered 22 quality starts, bested by only 16 pitchers, but not such big names as David Price, Chris Carpenter, Josh Beckett, Matt Garza, Jeremy Hellickson, Zack Greinke, Jon Lester, Michael Pineda or the Marlins' Sanchez.
All too often, fantasy owners ignore certain pitchers on draft day because their win potential isn't great. Well, if you use quality starts instead of wins, you'd gain greater perspective on performance. Something to ponder for 2013!
Eric Karabell examines the usefulness and utility of the "quality starts" statistic, and offers a handful of examples why it's a better gauge for pitcher performance than wins.