Donald Terman Presents - Baseball Pitching
Prime Start: The Concept

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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 won-lost 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 won-lost 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, 10-9 wins and losses count exactly the same as 10-0 (or 1-0) 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 nine-man 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 no-hitter, 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 six-inning, three-run outings might earn a pitcher a multimillion-dollar contract in the offense-happy milieu of today, the same performances would have earned him an unconditional release in 1908 or 1968, low-scoring 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 no-decision) 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 10-0 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 3-1 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 5-3. Cub runs 2, 3, and 4 (the latter the go-ahead 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 15-10 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 no-decisions, 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 2-0 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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