MLB Starters Aren’t What They Used to Be

Mitch Keller

8-26-21 – By Gary Morgan – @garymo2007 on Twitter

I see a ton of fans pound Derek Shelton for his babying of the starting pitching staff, and the numbers bear that out, the Pirates have the lowest percentage of quality starts in the league at 17%, but this doesn’t always equate to team performance. Today let’s dig in on a subject that if you’re not paying close attention seems to be a Pirates problem, but in reality is sweeping the league.

Let’s start at the beginning, a quality start has been clearly defined as 6 innings with 3 runs or less. That 17% is not good, it’s not even where Derek Shelton wants it, but when you consider the league average sits at 34% you start to see, they aren’t exactly off the pace by a country mile.

The league has changed, and you can largely blame the analytics driven Rays. They’ve changed the way starting pitching is handled, and without regard for how a starter is doing. Oh, I’m sure you all remember pulling Snell in the World Series. Tampa sits in first place in the AL East and 3rd from the bottom on this metric at 24% tied with the hapless Twins. In between them are the Orioles at 18%.

The very top of the mountain in MLB this year for quality starts is Oakland at 50%.

Now, we can’t allow this to go without context, so let’s step back to the turn of the century to really see how much worse this has become. The League average was 46%, Top end sat at 57% and the bottom of the barrel was 36%. So it’s gotten much worse, but maybe more so on the low end. The top end of the scale isn’t much different, but the bottom certainly is.

Maybe we should look at it from a perspective of number of pitches thrown per start, after all how many times have we been told that it’s all about pitch count now? Even Derek Shelton openly says he doesn’t care about how many innings they go, he just wants them to be efficient. Now, the bugaboo there is if they were efficient they’d probably throw more innings but I digress.

The league average here sits at 84 pitches per start. The lowest in the game is the Rays at 75, the top is the White Sox & Reds at 91. How do the Pirates stack up, well, right in the middle of the pack at 82 only two off the league average.

Hmm, maybe Shelton isn’t quicker on the trigger than anyone else.

The Pirates have only had 22 quality starts this season, I couldn’t just leave you with percentages to figure out. If I’m honest, having watched almost every game this season that number seems high.

There are 6 teams that don’t have one complete game. Indians, Rangers, Royals, Angels, Red Sox and the Buccos. 15 teams who don’t have a complete game shutout.

Believe it or not, the Pirates aren’t last in innings pitched per game started, they sit at 4.8 only bettered by the Rays at 4.7, Padres at 4.6 and Orioles at 4.5. The league average is 5.1 and the top of the mountain is the A’s at 5.7. Again jumping back to 2000 the league average was 5.9, the top figure was 6.4 and the bottom was 5.5. So it’s changed, just not as much as I think most of us perceive.

So what does all this say?

Well, first of all the Pirates numbers would be much worse without Tyler Anderson tossing 7 quality starts into the mix a number that JT Brubaker has matched believe it or not. 14 of their 22 quality starts came from two guys. Wow.

The point of all of this is really that the league has changed. Bullpenning is a thing, and it’s happening everywhere. If I asked you to name the best pitching staff in baseball you might say the Brewers, and they’re averaging 5.3 innings per start. Nobody is worried about them killing their bullpen because their bullpen is air tight, but rest assured, their starters are only averaging 84 pitches per start, 2 more than your Pirates.

I think there is plenty to criticize Derek Shelton for, but his handling of the pitching staff is really a creation of this league and the evolving management of arms more than having a quick hook that’s an outlier amongst his competition.

I also think it will improve slightly when he’s given better options, but not much. I think the data bears that out, at this point having a starter go 6 innings as an average would be an unbelievable departure from the norm.

I’m old enough to remember this being different.

In fact MLB didn’t even start tracking pitch counts as a stat before 1988. The league average then was 96 pitches per start to go along with 6.4 innings per start on average.

The game has changed and it isn’t going to go back to that. Just isn’t.

I say this because if you plan to be a baseball fan going forward but you remember Nolan Ryan tossing 140 pitch complete games and his comments about how he would have openly fought if they tried to pull him, you’re going to have to just see this as a nice story from history. Just like my Grandfather told me stories of his father driving before stop lights were a thing.

I’m not here to tell you it’s better, I’m just here to tell you it’s different and I’d recommend moving on to the next thing on your list of things to beat up the Pirates Skipper for executing. This is how he and 29 of his peers want to do things. More importantly, it’s what the doctors have told them to do.

Being an outlier here is the type of thing that could actually get you tossed out of conversations on Free Agent pitchers. Every pitcher will tell you they could do more, every one of them in a quiet moment will tell you they appreciate having their arm protected.

I’m no scientist or doctor, but I certainly can’t sit here and tell you arms are healthier today, they simply aren’t. The increased velocity and torque on breaking pitches is wrecking elbows like the Kardashians destroys young girls self images. Until someone decides a 97 mile per hour fastball isn’t better than 91, this is going to be the norm.

It’s not what I’d prefer either, and yet it is what I expect. You should too.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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