Going Deep: The Quality Start
I know most of you are here because you think fantasy baseball is fun, but make no mistake about it: Fantasy baseball is pain. One of its many pain points stems from the categories that leagues choose to count.
A common debate for pitching is the win versus the quality start. While I’ve become an advocate for the latter, it is not without its flaws. In this article, we’ll dive deeper into the advantages and pitfalls of the quality start and the win. So take a walk with me back to mid-April 2018 and through the good, the bad, and the ugly of the quality start.
Trouble is Brewing
Reds pitcher Luis Castillo stepped onto the mound for the seventh inning with a 9-0 lead and a pitch count around 90. His opponents, the Milwaukee Brewers, had been stifled all day by the young hurler to the tune of two hits, two walks, and eight strikeouts. Travis Shaw flew out to left to start the inning, and Castillo seemed poised to finish his outing with a flourish.
Instead, Jesus Aguilar hit a bloop single, then there was an infield single and a walk. And then Jorge Lopez — a relief pitcher — doubled to right-center, plating two. Castillo was yanked but watched as a wild pitch and a single brought across two more earned runs before the seventh was mercifully ended. His final line: 6.2 innings pitched, four earned runs. He would get the win easily, but a certain nameless fantasy owner whose league only counts quality starts had already tossed every couch pillow (they’re useless anyway) across the room.
For the newbies, a quality start is defined as an outing in which the starting pitcher yields three runs or fewer in six or more innings pitched. The term is attributed to Philadelphia Inquirer sports writer John Lowe, who coined the phrase in 1985 to better capture the effectiveness of a pitcher’s start. It has become a fairly popular metric in fantasy baseball because it a) neutralizes run support and b) limits the effect of bad bullpens coming in and ruining the win chance. Instead, the quality start is secure as soon as the pitcher exits and all responsible baserunners are accounted for.
The deGrom deBacle
Any Jacob deGrom owners in the house? Congrats on the stud. The National League Cy Young Award winner posted a minuscule 1.70 ERA in 2018 and threw 28 quality starts, including a Major League record 24 consecutive quality starts to finish the season. Anyone remember how many wins he managed? Ten. The Mets’ offense was historically bad in supporting deGrom, so owners in leagues that only count wins benefited from his stellar ratios but were hurt by the team’s inability to rally around him. Should the league’s top pitcher be a fantasy liability in one category just because Kevin Plawecki can’t get it done at the plate?
Daddy deGrom is an extreme instance of the quality start being a superior stat category but is hardly the exception to the rule. Of the top 25 pitchers in terms of quality starts last year, only one (Blake Snell) had more wins than quality starts. In many cases, the correlation is not close. Take a look at a cluster of starters who recorded 20 or more quality starts in 2018:
In the less extreme instance, a Marquez or Taillon owner received a notch in the quality starts category six more times over the course of a season than they would have by counting wins. In the more extreme case, a Kershaw owner would have received 11 more tallies in a quality start format. Those numbers may not seem terribly significant, but it has a noticeable effect on pitcher value.
Chasing wins favors mediocre pitchers such as infamous 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, who, while being supported by elite offenses, tally up wins despite less-than-stellar ratios. Same goes for lucky pitchers; Jon Lester outperformed his 4.39 FIP by a full run in 2018 and ran into 18 wins despite only throwing 15 quality starts. Those just aren’t the guys who should be considered top-shelf in any category.
So eliminate the win! Quality starts all the way! Right? Not so fast.
The ’Duardo Dilemma
Eduardo Rodriguez had a nice albeit injury-shortened 2018 campaign. He also had a strange allergy to the quality start, which highlights the somewhat arbitrary nature of the stat. There were nine times this past season that Rodriguez finished three outs or fewer from a quality start. Nine times. Nine times? Niiiiine times. Six of those times, he went a painful 5.2 innings, leaving him one batter shy of the quality start. On Sept. 1 against the Chicago White Sox, Rodriguez went 5.2 innings, surrendering three hits and a run while striking out 12. Is that start any less quality than a pitcher who got the extra out and gave up three runs in the process? Unequivocally, no.
And for that matter, is the threshold for the quality start too low? A pitcher could theoretically throw exactly six innings in every appearance, give up exactly three runs each time, and finish the year with a perfect quality start percentage. But his ERA would come in at 4.50, below the league average and well below what us fantasy nerds consider “quality.”
Rodriguez’s season also represents the effect a quality starts league has on the value of high-strikeout guys. Typically, it takes pitchers with higher strikeout rates more pitches to induce an out than a soft-contact pitcher. The high-strikeout guy is moving the ball in and out of the zone looking to induce swings and misses while contact guys want the ball to be hit. With the ever-dwindling pitch count always looming, starters such as Jack Flaherty, Chris Archer, and Mike Foltynewicz, all with K/9 around 10, are much further down the quality starts list.
Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner
I hate the win. If you haven’t caught that as my personal bias yet, then kudos to me for objective journalism! But the hard truth is that in a single season, in reflecting actual results on the field, the win does have some merit.
|ERA Final Ranking (2014-2018)||Avg # of Wins||Highest Win Total||Lowest Win Total|
|Top 10||16.2||22 (Arrieta, 2015)||9 (Hamels, 2014)|
|11-20||14||22 (Porcello, 2016)||6 (S. Miller, 2015)|
|21-30||12.3||19 (Severino, 2018)||7 (twice)|
Over the past five seasons, starting pitchers who rank in the top 10 in ERA average about two more wins than those in the next 10, with a similar margin between that group and the following 10. So there is correlation between on-field results and win total, but there’s also great variance. The right side of the above chart shows the wide range of win totals in each group. What the data suggests is that pitchers with lower ERAs should win more games, but that isn’t always the case.
Looking at expected stats changes the narrative somewhat: The top 10 pitchers according to xFIP in the same time span won only 15.1 games per year on average. Of those 50 qualifying pitchers, 19 won fewer than 15 games, and six hit the number right on the nose. That means half of the top 10 pitchers by that metric recorded 15 wins or fewer. That same group recorded an average of 22 quality starts per season. Only two of the 50 recorded fewer than 17 quality starts in a single season (Robbie Ray and sabermetric outlier Michael Pineda).
The Castillo game sticks with me because I’ve advocated for the quality start in most of the leagues in which I play. I assure you that for each instance of a late blown quality start, there are 10 instances of a mediocre middle reliever coughing up a starter’s lead. Ultimately, the choice is yours (or your league’s).
Counting wins certainly adds a new level of strategy where starters on stronger offensive teams become far more valuable. There’s more suspense and, in turn, more frustration attached to the win, but to some fantasy baseball owners, that’s all part of the fun. The quality start sets a benchmark, a finish line, that a pitcher can reach mostly independently and that is far less likely to be spoiled by an unreliable bullpen. It’s a metric that better serves the faint of heart, or better stated, those who want their pitcher’s outcome more or less settled when they’re yanked.
Choose wisely. Or don’t. You’re all winners in my eyes.
(Photo by Juan Salas/Icon Sportswire)