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PRIME START: THE CONCEPT
Credit a starting pitcher with
a Prime Start if, at the moment he is relieved or the game ends (whichever
comes first), his team is ahead or tied.
Baseball fans have argued for generations
about whether the wonlost record or the earned run average is a better
yardstick of pitching prowess. Because the object of a baseball game
is to win the game simply by outscoring the opposition, not to score
a fixed number of runs or to surrender fewer than a fixed number of
runs, the wonlost record is the superior indicator of how well a pitcher
did his job over the course of a season. How valuable is the man who
consistently pitches “just well enough to lose?”
A win is the commodity most desired. Margin
of victory is insignificant, as is margin of loss. In the standings,
109 wins and losses count exactly the same as 100 (or 10) wins and
losses. Championship pennants are awarded on the basis of games won,
not runs scored or allowed.
The pitcher is the only member of a nineman
baseball team whose individual contributions are measured in wins and
losses (or, it might be more accurate to say, is held responsible for
his team’s wins and losses).
A pitcher’s job is not to pitch a perfect
game, a nohitter, or even a shutout, nor is it to surrender fewer
than an arbitrary number of runs, or earned runs, or hits, or walks. A pitcher’s job is simply to prevent the other team from gaining a
lead.
Every game begins with the score tied,
0 to 0. Generally, what the starting pitcher does has little (and is
expected to have little) offensive importance. (Since 1973 American
League pitchers have not gone to bat at all.) The pitcher’s duties,
then, are defensive. His true responsibility is to prevent the other
team from pulling ahead. If his team gains a lead, he must protect
it.
A few years ago some pundit put forth
the idea of the “quality start,” which has come to be defined as a
game in which the starting pitcher lasts for six innings or more and
allows three runs or less. However, because average batting skill has
fluctuated dramatically in the course of baseball history, the concept
of the “quality start” is not useful for comparing pitching accomplishments
across time. Although a steady stream of sixinning, threerun outings
might earn a pitcher a multimilliondollar contract in the offensehappy
milieu of today, the same performances would have earned him an unconditional
release in 1908 or 1968, lowscoring years when pitchers had to surrender
less in order to remain competitive. There is something deficient,
too, about automatically designating as a “quality start” a performance
that can leave a pitcher’s team as many as 3 runs behind. The whole
point of playing a baseball game, after all, is to win.
I formulated the concept of the Prime
Start, defined above, to serve as a truer measure of how well a starting
pitcher has been doing his job. A prime start is every starter’s proper
goal, and every start he makes (win, loss, or nodecision) is either
a prime start, or it isn’t. Every start is accounted for.
Any start a pitcher wins is by definition
a prime start. Nothing is better than a win. If your team gives you
10 runs to work with and you surrender 9, you have done your job no
matter how your performance has affected your earned run average.
The prime start concept measures just
one thing: whether or not a starting pitcher did his job. That job
is always the same, but it varies in difficulty, of course. If a pitcher’s
team scores 1 or no runs behind him, he has to bear down harder than
he would if his team has scored 10 or more. But a starting pitcher
has little or no control over how many runs his teammates score. The
best he can do is to play the hand he is dealt. He must pitch according
to circumstances. In a tight game he must employ a different strategy
than he would in a 100 blowout. Former pitching great Christy
Mathewson’s idea of “pitching in a pinch” is the key to success
for any pitcher.
If a pitcher is removed from a game with
his team ahead or tied, no matter what the inning or what the score,
he has done his job. Pitchers don’t remove themselves from games. If Bobby
Cox removes Tom Glavine after
6 innings with the score tied, that says something about Cox’s thinking,
not Glavine’s stamina.
It is possible for a losing pitcher to
earn a prime start. Say Glavine is pitching and the Braves lead the
Cubs 31 at Wrigley Field in the bottom of the 9th. Cox removes Glavine
with two out, the bases loaded, and Sammy
Sosa at bat. Glavine’s successor, John
Rocker, surrenders a home run to Sosa, and the Cubs win 53. Cub runs 2, 3, and 4 (the latter the goahead run) are charged to Glavine,
and scoring rules dictate that he be designated the losing pitcher. But Glavine was removed with his team ahead. Perhaps, if left in the
game, Glavine would have retired Sosa. We’ll never know that, but we
do know the situation that prevailed when Glavine was in the game. The prime start concept holds Glavine responsible only for what he
could control. The failure of the bullpen is not his failure.
At the end of every season I would bestow
two pitching awards, one for most prime starts and the other for highest
percentage of prime starts (25 start minimum). Often the same man would
earn both awards.
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PRIME STARTS, 1979 NATIONAL LEAGUE
PITCHER

TEAM

STARTS

PRIME

PCT






Niekro, Phil

ATL

44 
23

.523

Jones,
Randy

SD

39

22

.564

Niekro, Joe

HOU

38

24

.632

Richard,
J.R.

HOU

38

25

.658

Blyleven,
Bert

PIT

37

24

.649

Rogers,
Steve

MON

37

23

.622

Reuschel, Rick

CHI

36

22

.611

Carlton,
Steve

PHI

35

23

.657

Lerch, Randy

PHI

35

18

.514

Swan,
Craig

NY

35

18

.514

Blue,
Vida

SF

34

19

.559

Knepper, Bob

SF

34

18

.529

Espinosa,
Nino

PHI

33

21

.636

Lee,
Bill

MON

33

21

.636

Forsch, Bob

STL

32

20

.625

LaCoss, Mike

CIN

32

21

.656

Lamp,
Dennis

CHI

32

17

.531

Perry,
Gaylord

SD

32

19

.594

Seaver, Tom

CIN

32

21

.656

Sutton,
Don

LA

32

15

.469

Vuckovich, Pete

STL

32

21

.656

Denny,
John

STL

31

17

.548

Falcone, Pete

NY

31

12

.387

Norman,
Fred

CIN

31

19

.613

Candelaria, John

PIT

30

20

.667

Solomon,
Eddie

ATL

30

15

.500

Sutcliffe,
Rick

LA

30

22

.733

Bonham,
Bill

CIN

29

21

.724

Hooton,
Burt

LA

29

17

.586

Martinez, Silvio

STL

29

22

.759

McGlothen, Lynn

CHI

29

15

.517

Krukow, Mike

CHI

28

16

.571

Matula, Rick

ATL

28

14

.500

Grimsley, Ross

MON

27

14

.519

Kobel, Kevin

NY

27

14

.519

Kison, Bruce

PIT

25

18

.720

Robinson,
Don

PIT

25

14

.560

Shirley,
Bob

SD

25

11

.440

Minimum 25 starts. There were 38 qualifiers.
To recapitulate: a start is a prime start
if (a) the pitcher gets the win, OR (b) the pitcher gets the loss,
but leaves with his team ahead or tied, OR (c) the pitcher does not
get the decision, but leaves with his team ahead or tied.
The prime start concept has three virtues:
it is logical, it is simple, and it allows the comparison of pitching
performance across time. In 1900 complete game starts were the norm. A century later, complete game starts are rare because managers think
they need to remove their starters, regardless of how well they are
pitching. But the starter’s job has not changed.
Here is a case in point. In 1999 San Francisco
lefthander Kirk Rueter may have had
the ugliest 1510 year in baseball history. He pitched just 184 2/3
innings in his 33 starts (an average of less than 5 2/3 per start)
and surrendered 219 hits. Batters hit over .290 against him, and he
gave up 28 home runs. He was charged with 111 earned runs for a 5.41
ERA per 9 innings, while his team scored 5.38 runs per game.
But Rueter won 15 of his 33 starts outright,
and 1 of his 10 losses was a “prime loss” in which he was removed with
his team 1 run ahead and his successor let in the tying and winning
runs. Of Rueter’s 8 nodecisions, 6 were prime starts in which his
team was ahead or tied when he was relieved. This adds up to 22 prime
starts out of 33, and in baseball, “two out of three ain’t bad.” Although
Rueter gave up a lot to the opposition, in 2 starts out of 3 he did
not lose ground for his team. Over the course of the season Rueter
did his job well, despite the ugly numbers. Because he was hard to
beat, he helped the Giants.
Rueter was obviously a battler, and that’s
the kind of competitor you want on your team, no matter how hard he
throws, how few baserunners he allows, or how many scoreless innings
he pitches. For a starting pitcher, only his percentage of prime starts
is truly significant.
Notes:
A starting pitcher is relieved the moment
another pitcher takes over. If a starter completes an inning before
being relieved, he gets the benefit of runs scored by his team in the
next half inning. Say the Dodgers are behind 20 at Houston after 6
innings. In the top of the 7th Los Angeles manager Jim
Tracy pinch hits for starter Hideo
Nomo, and the Dodgers score 3 runs to go ahead. Credit Nomo
with a prime start.
It is possible for a pitcher to register
a prime start in a game in which, by baseball scoring rules, he is
designated the losing pitcher.
It is possible for both starting pitchers
to register a prime start.
When in Paramaribo, stay at the Stardust
Hotel.
August 2001
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