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 Verdict

 

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)

Nate Musser

Nate Musser is an avid Bay Area sports fan, and a sometimes sarcastic sportswriter. He's written for several now-defunct blogs and is hoping not to cause the downfall of Pitcher List. He lives in Northern California where he sometimes has a beard and sometimes does not.

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Comments


FreeDanielVogelbach

In our 20 teamer, we’re moving away from QS all together and haven’t done W in a long time. We use Fantrax who has a QA stat (Quality Appearances). We asked them for, and they obliged, a revised QA stat which assigns a point value to quality innings. In a nutshell, the stat rewards a pitcher one point every time they reach 2 innings while keeping a 4.50 ERA intact through their appearance. It gives long relievers a chance at earning some value (think bullpenning situations) and solves the issue of a dominant 5.2 IP start not resulting in a QS. At least now that 5.2 IP pitcher earns 2 QA points. It also rewards a pitcher who goes deeper into the game – an 8IP start that has an era 4.50 or under gets 4 QA points. We think this solves most of the concerns with SP in today’s MLB vs. fantasy landscape. A note on IP – we’ve used IP in addition to QS over the past few years but IP as a category leads to SP hoarding and Sunday waiver streaming. While that may not pose a problem for smaller leagues, we’re eliminating IP for our 20 team.

John

Nice article!

My league has wrestled with this QS/W category for years. We started stumbling onto something when we decided to combine them about two years ago (W+QS). Last year I feel we hit the jackpot by incorporating a negative…Losses. Now we have (W+QS)-L as a stat. Being that we are in a weekly categories league, it really adds intrigue to both good team and bad team starters, certain middle relievers, and it even makes you care about the game results of the teams your pitchers pitch for. It has been one of our better category changes.

Nate Musser

I think something like this is a better/more fun metric; it’s just unfortunate that a lot of the major fantasy sites don’t allow for something quite so customized. Love the idea though!

Jack Cecil

I wish this pasted better, but last year I did a SQL query that found that not only were there more starting pitcher quality starts than starting pitcher wins, but also that starters who threw quality starts went deeper and had better ERAs in those starts than starters who were given the win.

Season Total Wins Innings per Win ERA per win Total QS Inning per QS ERA per QS
2002 1703 6.818946 2.15 2375 6.991578 2.03
2003 1730 6.81946 2.22 2378 6.948275 2.04
2004 1657 6.746328 2.3 2277 6.93 2.02
2005 1741 6.843767 2.24 2447 7.0079 2.04
2006 1723 6.710388 2.35 2279 6.905075 2.07
2007 1682 6.619896 2.37 2318 6.819528 2.12
2008 1682 6.647047 2.17 2345 6.825728 2.02
2009 1706 6.665884 2.19 2350 6.846666 2.03
2010 1736 6.778801 2 2583 6.891469 1.98
2011 1716 6.79118 1.98 2597 6.907842 1.94
2012 1738 6.72171 2.01 2485 6.857545 1.94
2013 1658 6.688379 1.92 2556 6.832811 1.93
2014 1706 6.694997 1.87 2623 6.83365 1.88
2015 1673 6.66567 1.89 2432 6.809758 1.86
2016 1628 6.521089 2.06 2262 6.703654 1.96
2017 1640 6.360365 2.11 2121 6.632091 1.99

Louie Maggiotto

I am in the perfect league: 7×7, with BOTH Wins and QS. How do we compensate for that over-valuing the SP’s? We add K/9 as the 7th category! That helps all the RP’s (and, of course, elite SP’s). I’m telling you: it’s the perfect solution. On the hitter’s side, we add OBP (which to value guys who walk), and SLG to value power guys. I’m. Telling. You. It’s perfect!

Fred

Curious what fantasy folks are thinking about the QS category as we move forward into a potential “Openers” era. I’m in a league using QS and it really changes how I look at Tampa Rays “starting” pitchers going into this year (except Snell). I’ll have to keep my ears perked for copycat teams as well. Certainly, these pitchers may be devalued in leagues where QS is a factor, but also may benefit from leagues that allow you to use these pitchers in a RP slot, for those that differentiate SP and RP within their lineup.

Jose

Another problem with QS is that fewer pitchers in general are throwing 6 innings per start in this era of bullpen specialization. This makes ace level starters even more valuable. Also, since relievers can’t vulture Quality Starts, they lose a ton of value.

The only real solution is to abandon 5×5 and play in a points league or a league with more categories, balancing quantity vs quality or at least forcing owners to pick a strategy. Add some rate categories and negative categories like BB, BR, or Ls.

The potential downside of more categories is that saves and stolen bases on the hitting side become devalued, but as anyone who has ever drafted Billy Hamilton will tell you, chasing one dimensional category performers is the worst and least true to life part of fantasy baseball.

John

I like my leagues pitching balance but it does require a lot of 8 offensive categories to balance it out. We go W, L, QS, Holds, S, K, ERA, WHIP. I like the starting balance and the two RP categories keep the SP/RP balance.

Josh A.

Our league does both (6×6 league; 2B+3B is the added one on offense). I do hate wins. From a reality perspective, it is more indicative of the effectiveness. You get a bad luck pitcher who keeps losing 1-0, 2-1 games, doesn’t mean he sucks in reality or fantasy. So it just works better to do both.

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