Braves Pitching and Real Quality Starts

mminor_ter_ak4_150_extra_largeThe Braves are on a roll. Since April 10th in Houston they’re 8-1, sweeping the Brewers and taking both the Astro and Met series  There were two huge factors in these victories, the awakening of Jason Heyward, Michael Bourn, Martin Prado and Freddie Freeman was one. The other was a string of quality starts turned in by Braves pitchers – well, except Jair Jurrjens who continues to struggle. In the seven  starts since the Houston series pitchers The pitching lines looked like this.

IP R K BB Result
Jurrjens 5 5 3 5 W
Minor 6 1/3 1 4 1 W
Beachy 7 1 6 2 W
Hanson 7 5 4 2 L
Delgado 5 1/3 3 5 3 W
Jurrjens 4 4 2 4 W
Minor 8 1 9 0 W

The discussion about pitching effectiveness on the current staff inevitably leads to comparisons with the staff during the streak. When it turns to the difficulties Jurrjens has had so far this year and come to that the inability to get Derek Lowe back on track last year the question of whether Leo Mazzone would make a difference always pops up. So I thought I ‘d take a look and see what I could figure out – if anything – about that discussion.  To do that we need to have some kind of reference to bridge the generation gap.  So we’ll start with a Quality Start.


A Quality Start – Is It Quality?

The generally accepted definition goes something like this.

Quality Start: The term given to a game where a starting pitcher goes six innings and allows three earned runs or less.

It originated with Philadelphia sports writer John Lowe back in 1985 and to be fair to Lowe, he designed the term to mean something more than what it has become. In an article by Rob Beyer over at ESPN Lowe put it this way.

Part of me was surprised that a lot of people would like a new stat,” Lowe says. “Part of me wasn’t surprised, though, because quality starts does what no other stat does: it attempts to show how often a starting pitcher does his job in the bullpen era, which is to keep his team in the game and give them a chance to win it.”  (my emphasis)

It was a catchy phrase however that the fan who just loves the game and can’t be bothered with the details could understand. Soon the catchy phrase – taken out of context – had a bandwagon full of talking heads preaching to everyone what a great tool was now in their hands. The downside of that philosophy is worthy of thousands of words itself. Suffice to say that parents coach and run little leagues and they soon were looking at pitch counts and quality starts at that level. Understand that I want to protect young arms as much as anyone but youth teams would be far more successful in doing that if they simply banned breaking pitches before the age of 16. Sure kids will throw them on the sidelines and playing around but the stress a breaking ball puts on arms that are still growing and developing is worse than letting him throw a few more pitches.  Then when the young man gets an elbow twinge they want Tommy John Surgery right away. Idiots. . .I digress…

This is about Braves pitching so with one more little side trip, we’ll head back there.

A Real Quality Start

It’s always seemed to me that with the league averaging 4.15 runs a game, a quality start would have to be less than that by at least a half a run. That would mean a somewhere around a 3.65  era which translates to 7 1/3 innings and three earned runs. To keep it simple I rounded that to seven innings and  three runs or less.  As I was researching this post I found that I’m in Hall of Fame company. Nolan Ryan has said that the Rangers consider seven innings and 3 runs or less a quality start. That follows his philosophy that starters should carry the game deeper and expect to go nine not six innings when they take the mound.  This means less reliance on middle relief who after all are usually starters who don’t have the skill to get through the lineup twice. It also recognizes that today’s lineups are better athletes – bigger and stronger than in the past – and more skilled,  so complete games will not come as often. I was going to call this a Ryan Quality Start but as I live close to Arlington and remember what happened to Robin Ventura when he did something Nolan didn’t care for, I will henceforth call this a Real Quality start or RQS. You can read Ryan if you wish Smile   Now, Let’s see how those two types of QS apply to the Braves pitching.

Braves Pitching History

The table shows what I call simple 6 inning starts without regard to the runs allowed, a QS, a simple seven inning start, RQS and games where starting pitchers went eight or nine innings. All numbers came via Baseball Reference’s Play Index tool.

  6 Inning Basic QS   RQS 8 Inning 9 Inning LG QS% Rank
1991 106 94 58% 68 34 16 3
1992 116 110 63% 83 50 26 1
1993 126 107 66% 83 52 19 1
1994 89 72 63% 62 34 16 1
1995 101 80 56% 63 38 16 2
1996 109 90 56% 74 37 12 3
1997 128 124 70% 87 47 16 1
1998 130 110 68% 84 38 23 1
1999 128 97 59% 68 27 11 2
2000 124 93 57% 69 20 11 1
2001 125 94 61% 61 18 7 1
2002 99 85 53% 49 14 4 5
2003 105 83 52% 54 14 5 7
2004 111 78 60% 57 12 4 1
2005 104 81 48% 56 27 9 11
2006 93 71 44% 46 18 6 14
2007 91 81 50% 49 14 1 6
2008 88 69 46% 37 9 3 11
2009 111 99 61% 54 11 2 1
2010 102 88 53% 44 11 0 8
2011 103 86 53% 38 8 3 8

You’ll notice looking at streak – forward Braves history, the number of simple six inning starts had its highs and lows but in general remained steady. The same is true of the traditional QS. Like almost every other team, 8th and 9th inning starts are down 60% or more. Now look at the Ryan Real QS numbers as they relate to the streak.

Except for 2002-2003 which was a down year for league pitching as whole, our RQS numbers were always at 57 games or more – usually above 68 – during the streak.  During the streak the Braves were always at or near the top of the basic QS pile. In 2005 – the Baby-Braves, Wild-Card year – we slipped to 11th. Since 2005 we’ve had one year where we finished with a QS rank above 6th – 2009.

That’s a lot of numbers, believe me so let me see if I can summarize it a bit before moving on.

  • Braves QS are down about 10% (8 to 9 games) from our streak peak. That’s a bigger drop than the league overall as witnessed by the fact that we’ve dropped out of the top three spots where we lived during most of the streak.
  • During the streak we averaged 68 RQS (for stat heads mean, median and modal are all 68, curious isn’t it?) and we always won.
  • Since the streak Braves RQS are down between 40% and 50% – 18 to as much as 30 games last year.

thereforeBraves our pitching is good but no longer the force it once was; we’ve been living on reputation and the strong arms on Tim Hudson and until 2007,  John Smoltz. But why?


A Funny Thing Happened during the Streak. .

The game changed. Pitchers became progressively more specialized. Most no longer seek the white buffalo of a complete game. They’ve been coached to the point that they think six innings and three runs is a good days work. Some even watch their pitch count so closely they know when it’s at 100 and look for the bullpen to come to their rescue.  In Tim Kurkjian’s ESPN The Magazine article Baseball’s Magic Number: 100,  he opens with this tale.

“The names and teams aren’t important, but here’s what happened in July 2008 on a beautiful evening at Nationals Park. The visiting pitching coach went to the mound to talk to his pitcher, who was laboring slightly.

“I can’t pitch any more,” the pitcher told the pitching coach.

“Are you hurt?” the pitching coach asked.

“No, I just can’t pitch any more,” the pitcher said. Then he walked off the mound.

He had thrown 90 pitches. “

Pitchers today are groomed strictly for a role, whether it’s starter or closer. In every career field specialization causes shortages of people who can do almost everything at a high level because they are optimized into their specialty. in a limited talent pool like that from which baseball draws it’s prospects, that specialization hurts even worse. That’s why teams actively try to convert players with big arms into relievers even if they may be in a shortage position such as catcher.

The pitchers we do sign are often rushed to the big leagues before they’ve had a change to mature as a pitcher.

“You will notice that if people have experience in failing in the minor leagues, they are more equipped to handle success and failure at the major league level.” Jim Bunning

Tony La Rusa said it like this.

. . . It seems to me (before 2000) we had one guy (one the staff) in his 30s, a couple of guys in their prime at 29 to 31, and only one of the five in his early 20s. And those guys could all throw more than 100 (pitches). . .Paul Richards once explained this to me, . . .: As a young pitcher, the arm is growing. It is developing strength. It doesn’t have the musculature that it’s going to have in a few years. That’s how you develop arm and elbow strains, even core injuries, because a young body isn’t like a mature body, and it is just not as strong as it’s going to be.. . . Young guys today rely on stuff. They throw 100 pitches; they don’t pitch 100 pitches. . . . .In the old days, pitchers spent time in D ball, C ball; they threw 500-600 innings, sometimes 700-800, on lower levels. . . .Today’s young pitchers are firing 85-90 pitches, fatigue sets in,  . . .A veteran at 70 pitches might have all kinds of stuff left.. . .”

Money is usually a factor because even bad pitchers with major league experience cost a lot of money these days. So what we get the are young men who are still throwing instead of pitching and have to learn on the job against bug league hitters who will punish them for their mistakes. Randall Delgado. Julio Teheran,  and Arodys Vizcaino are certainly examples of this. Vizcaino turned 21 in November and yet many expected him to be in our bullpen this year. He has 17 major league innings and 268 2/3 minor league innings. He also has an injury history as long as his minor league career and is out this year with TJ surgery . . .at 21 years 130+ days.

Teaching talent like these young men possess is – in today’s game – down to the pitching coach and that brings us to Leo Mazzone.

The Legend Of Leo Mazzone

Mazzone is a divisive figure amongst the fans. Some say he was overrated, failed in Baltimore and hasn’t been hired anywhere so he obviously wasn’t special. Others say Baltimore didn’t hold up their end of the bargain and implement his methods. There’s no way of knowing that yet.  But, did the departure of Leo Mazzone play a big part in the slide of Braves pitching since then?

Mazzone’s departure in 2005 certainly coincided with the sharp drop off in RQS.  The numbers do show starters’ innings began shrinking while he was still with the club.  Some of that can be attributed to specialization and the sea change in the way kids are taught to pitch these days. But there was a  significant drop off when he left.

For an independent view I turned to  J.C Bradbury.  Bradbury has a chapter in The Baseball Economist all about Leo. Coincidentally titled, “How Good is Leo Mazzone?  key parts of that chapter are available at this link.

Bradbury analyzed various statistics to see if he could objectively determine whether Mazzone made a really significant impact on his staff or simply had Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Greg Maddux and Steve Avery to lean on. Bradbury looked at pitchers who spent at least a full year under Leo and another year with a different coach away from Atlanta. After crunching his numbers Bradbury came to believe that Mazzone was indeed a pretty special pitching coach. He found that Leo’s affect on era was similar to removing a pitcher from Coors field and putting him back at sea level..

  • Leo lowered the era of his pitchers by more than half a run  – 0.63 run to be exact.
  • When a pitcher left Atlanta their era increased by 0.78 runs.

Relievers did best under Leo and he handled a bunch of them. During the streak the Braves used 78 different relief pitchers for at least 10 games in a season, while 26 of them closed at least two games for the Braves and 14 had 10 or more saves in a season at least once.

Bradbury was careful to account for age, ballpark factors and league differentials during his evaluations as well so to preclude arguments that for example a player got a bad rap because he played at a homer haven.

I remember talking Dave Duncan saving pitcher’s career and saying I though Mazzone did that as well. Many just saw the little chubby guy rocking on the bench and laughed. How well did Denny Neagle, John Burkett, Russ Ortiz and Jaret Wright do after they left Atlanta anyway?

Colorado (before) 5.57 1.469 91
Neagle ATL 3.43 1.167 122
Cincinnati (after) 3.89 1.291 122
Texas (before) 5.13 1.444 96
Burkett ATL 3.74 1.329 121
Boston (after 4.85 1.404 95
Indians (before) 5.50 1.590 87
Wright ATL 3.23 1.270 134
Yankees (after) 4.99 1.603 89

Ortiz never played only a handful of games and was never a factor for any club.

Another factor as Bradbury noted seems to come down on the side that says Leo leaving was a significant mental factor in the decline of Braves pitching.

“ The fact that pitchers seem to lose the Leo magic when they leave the Braves indicates to me that part of the Mazzone method involves handling pitchers during the game. . . . If this is the case, then manager Bobby Cox deserves some credit as well. “

Something else that often goes unmentioned is how healthy the pitchers remained while he was pitching coach. Glavine and Maddux were never on the disabled list during the streak in spite of the fact that Glavine made 400 starts throwing 2699 innings and Maddux made 363 starts throwing 2527 innings. Smoltz did have TJ surgery in 2000 but that was after 281 starts and 1911 innings. He returned to bring his start total up to 319 and add 241 relief appearances for a total of 2426 innings under Mazzone.

Leo says that the pitchers were stronger because he had them throw more between starts and use long toss. The Rangers just started a similar program to strengthen their pitchers arms based on the work of independent coach Alan Jaeger.  Leo was apparently ahead of his time.

That’s A Wrap

Whether Mazzone’s departure was the trigger for decline in Braves pitching or not we can’t turn the clock back and undo it. It is clear that during the streak he was a central cog in the division winning machine. He took mediocre pitchers and turned them into more than they were and he kept them healthy. He turned pitchers like Greg McMichael into closers and successful ones to boot. Pitchers that wouldn’t adopt the Mazzone method didn’t stay long and few had success elsewhere. True he had a talented staff of pitchers in their peak years but he carried many well past that peak and took youngsters like Steve Avery and made them top of the line starters.  Leo is not coming back and maybe it wouldn’t work if he did. We don’t have a corps of 26-29 year old studs but we do have some very talented arms and Tim Hudson to lend seasoned guidance.

Our ‘untouchables’ from last year aren’t major league ready yet. Vizcaino may never be what he was projected to become. Julio Teheran just turned 21 and has only 390 minor league innings under his belt. He may not be ready this year or next. He’s still throwing instead of using his tools to pitch.  Even Randall Delgado who’s shown he has the temperament to do the job is not allowed to break that 100 pitch barrier when throwing well. Jurrjens is an enigma; so much talent and so little consistency as well as having the injury bug as a roommate. He reminds me a little of Andy Benes.

Tommy Hanson’s velocity is down but he at least looks determined and sharp of late. The vaunted change in his arm angle amounted to a less exaggerated twist of his wrist and forearm. It still leaves him vulnerable to stolen bases but if it prevents further injury I’m for it.  With Brian McCann behind the plate fast runners will continue to drive Tommy nuts. Rick Sutcliffe had similar issues and overcame them, Tommy can as well. I’m just not sure he’s going to.

What we need is more pitching like we had this weekend and of course the offense to provide early runs to support them. Going seven is easier if you have six runs on the board, or it should be. Somehow The Braves must convert their young talent into about 60+ RQS a year while keeping them healthy enough – and committed to Atlanta enough – to be part of the next streak.

Always glad to hear your thoughts on the subject pro and con. Follow me on Twitter @fredeowens and if you have questions or want information in a post let me know by dropping a line to the Take with my name in the subject line. Thanks for taking the time to read my posts.

Tags: Arodys Vizcaino Brandon Beachy Leo Mazone Mike Minor Quality Start

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