Comparisons across sports may not always fair, but they are inevitable. One of the more intriguing such cross-sport parallels is that between pitchers and goaltenders. It's certainly one that make a certain measure of sense: both positions entail duties that differ drastically from those of teammates, pitchers and goaltenders are the ones who get wins and losses tacked to their record, they're the ones who can most easily be labeled either "hero" or "goat", the ones whose performance can single-handedly win games on a regular basis, and the ones whose roles are often defined as "just be good enough to give you team a chance".
It's that final caveat that has give rise to baseball's Quality Start statistic as a way to measure a pitcher's ability to consistently give his team a good chance at winning a game. The Quality Start concept has now been adapted to hockey by Puck Prospectus, which defined a Quality Start for a goaltender in the following way:
Based on these two parameters, a Quality Start is defined as any start in which the goaltender's save percentage is .913 or better, or at least 0.885 percent, but allowed fewer than 3 goals. Looking at every game this season, Quality starts have resulted in an actual winning percentage of 0.775, while non-Quality Starts have a winning percentage of only 0.325.
The numbers are not arbitrary - they're based on league-wide winning percentages and median league performances, and the logic and methodology seems to be sound. Despite this, there's no doubt that the metric is imperfect - on Friday night Simeon Varlamov was not close a Quality Start by either measure, yet was not clearly to fault on any of the five goals he allowed - but it does do a better job of analytically measuring goaltender consistency than any other metric. So how does Jose Theodore stack up with goalies on other Eastern Conference playoff contenders? Here's a look at the season-long statistics through last weekend's games:
Simply put, these numbers don't flatter Theodore. Actually, they're all but disastrous and seem to be a legitimate cause for concern. Sure, we figured he'd be behind guys like Henrik Lundqvist and Tim Thomas, but Martin Biron and Carey Price? Whatever the measure of performance, you have to be concerned if they guy you're relying on is behind those two, right? Probably, but before we start throwing our hands up and inciting panic, there are three important facts to consider.
The first is that the 2008-09 season has truly been a tale of two season for Theodore, the clear cut divider being the December 23rd game against the Rangers in which Theodore was pulled in favor of Brent Johnson about twelve minutes in to the game, and then returned to the net in the second period. At the end of that first period, Theodore was sporting an unsightly 3.39 goals against average and a .878 save percentage for the season. Since returning to the net, Theodore's goals against average has been 2.55 and his save percentage has been .911. Unsurprisingly, Theodore's quality start numbers have risen as well. The December 23rd game was his 17th start of the season, and at that point Theodore has only registered five quality starts; his quality start percentage was an embarrassingly low 29.4% Since that game, Theodore has started 36 games and registered 19 quality starts, a quality start percentage of 52.8%. It's also worth noting that on one start, January 20th against Ottawa, Theodore missed a quality start by the slimmest of margins, recording a .912 save percentage.
The second fact is what quality starts attempts to measure, being good enough to give your team a chance to win, is something that has a very different definition from team to team. Backstopping a team that plays a defensive style and doesn't score all that often like New York (2.37 goals per game) or Florida (2.74 goals per game) is quite different from backstopping a team that favors a wide open, high scoring system like the Capitals, who average 3.20 goals per game, and it's a difference that this statistic doesn't capture. In the crudest terms, Jose Thedore's not going to have win very many 2-1 games for a Capitals team that scores three or more more often than not, while the numbers suggest that giving up twenty goals in a seven game series would be enough to eliminate a team like the Panther or the Rangers.
The third is that the table looks radically different if it's based on career playoff performance* rather than this season:
*Only playoff performances from the 1999-2000 season onward are included.
Of course this particular data set if rife with small sample sizes and data being skewed by hot streaks (would anyone really take Cam Ward or Marc-Andre Fleury over Martin Brodeur or Tim Thomas because they had one hot postseason?), and realistically Theodore is probably not the fourth best of these nine goalies. In addition, Theodore's numbers are skewed from his time Montreal. Post lockout , Theodore has started 19 games and had nine quality starts, a 47.4 quality start percentage. That said, his past playoff performance certainly suggests he will, at the very least, be competent Capitals this postseason, especially considering that four of his post-lockout non-quality starts came last year against the Red Wings, when Theodore was sick enough that he was once sent back to the team's hotel before the game ended.
So what does this all mean for the Capitals? Well, for starters it means that the Capitals probably aren't too far behind other Eastern Conference teams when it comes to how much faith they should have in their goaltending (which isn't exactly new information) and that the steady stream of criticism leveled against Theodore this season is largely unfair. But most importantly it means that while Theodore might not be all the likely to steal a ton of game or a series for the Capitals, he's even less likely to be the reason for an early postseason exit.