As I was looking toward my dynasty league’s annual discussion to make changes to our constitution, I was thinking about what we could do to further improve our league. Since the league’s inception in 2016, we have always been a 5×5 head-to-head categories league with the same ten categories. We use your standard hitting categories, substituting on-base percentage in place of average, and your standard pitching categories, adding holds and saves together, and swapping wins for quality starts.
Let’s focus on that last one there for a bit. It is a pretty common house rule for leagues to use quality starts instead of wins.
If you can only have one, which pitching stat do you prefer for your fantasy baseball league?
— Nick Pollack (@PitcherList) October 28, 2022
I certainly understand the draw that quality starts hold over wins. After all, a win isn’t a great measure of a pitcher’s skill, but often their luck and supporting cast. Take for example José Berríos from this past season: he sported a not-so-good 5.23 ERA, but still managed to win 12 games in 32 starts. Meanwhile, José Quintana only won 6 games in his 32 starts, despite a much better 2.93 ERA.
Still, quality starts can be a bit aggravating in their own right. Take, for example, Nestor Cortes‘ outing on April 17th, 2022 against the Orioles. In just his second start of the year, Cortes was limited to 88 pitches but still managed to strike out 12 O’s while only surrendering 3 hits and 1 walk. Unfortunately, he was removed after the 5th inning, meaning this 0.00 ERA, 0.800 WHIP, and 12 K performance did not earn him a quality start. In fact, Baltimore went on to win this game, which means he didn’t even earn a win!
Even on the opposite end of the spectrum, Brady Singer’s 8.1-inning performance on June 26th, 2022 shows quality starts other weakness: the arbitrary 3-run-minimum. Facing Oakland, Singer threw over eight innings of ball, giving up 7 hits, 1 BB, 4 ER, and 5 K. For those counting at home, that gave him a 4.32 ERA for the game, but no quality start, despite an arguably fantastic outing.
So, what can be done instead? Well, let’s talk about…
The Quality Appearance
I am certainly not the first to make this argument or even the first to use this stat in their league. If you’re on Fantrax, you have nine different quality appearance options to get the one that best suits your league. Going forward I’ll be discussing their QA4, which is my personal favorite.
Simply put, a quality appearance is any outing that lasts at least 4 innings with a resulting ERA of 4.50 or lower. Cortes’ five-inning gem? Quality appearance. Singer’s 25-out loss? It was actually the only quality appearance of 2022 with more than three earned runs.
Another knock against the quality start is the new-age usage of pitchers and the focus on pitch count. Too often, players are given 90 or 100 pitches to throw in a game. Maybe they labor through 5+ innings of 2-run ball and are taken out before they complete six innings. This style of managerial strategy has led to a drastic decrease in quality starts across the league. Since 2011, MLB’s quality starts total peaked in 2014 at 1922, but has decreased every year since, falling to a low of just 1264 in 2021 (2022 actually saw a slight increase but I’m willing to bet that will be an outlier after next season). That’s a 34% drop in league-wide quality starts in just seven years!
Baseball is changing, and it’s time we as a fantasy community change with it.
The Argument for QA
I’ve not yet discussed the hero of the Quality Appearance: the Tampa Bay Rays and their openers. In 2018, Ryan Yarbrough pitched in 28 games and won 11 of them, but never recorded a quality start. This is despite such performances as his May 25th outing against the Orioles: 7 IP, 8 K, 7 hits, 0 BB, 1 ER. But Sergio Romo preceded him, thus he was not eligible for a quality start due to, ya know, not starting the game. This game was one of Yarbrough’s 15 quality appearances in 2018. A similar story can be told for Tommy Milone’s 2019 season, which saw him rack up 13 quality appearances despite no quality starts.
Or perhaps we can look at Shane McClanahan’s 2021 season which saw the rookie on a strict pitch limit. This meant McClanahan only threw 6+ innings 6 times out of his 25 games started. Each of these gave him his 6 quality starts for the year, but he would total 18 quality appearances, giving fantasy managers 12 more very useful starts! The same can be said for Julio Urías‘ 2021 season: a young, talented pitcher held to a strict pitch count, limiting his quality starts, but racking up lots of quality appearances. Urías would garner 13 QS, but 24 QA; that means he ranked 36th in MLB in QS, but tied for 4th in QA!
Maybe the most drastic cases of fantasy-viability from one stat to the other, were Drew Rasmussen and Chris Archer in 2022. Oddly, they had very different seasons; Rasmussen transitioned from the bullpen to a starting role, winning 11 games on the back of a 2.84 ERA. Yet he only recorded 9 QS in his 28 starts (he was actually the first pitcher in all of his games pitched). Much like his teammate McClanahan the season before, Rasmussen was held to a strict pitch count. Yet, his work in shorter stints was still very good, getting him 20 quality appearances, tying him with Zack Wheeler and Robbie Ray!
Further north, Archer saw himself in a pseudo-opener role. He never once pitched more than 5 innings, essentially facing the batting order twice and then handing the game over to the bullpen. Of course, this means he never earned a quality start, but he still managed to get 16 quality appearances!
Is QA Right for You?
Maybe. I certainly think this approach to pitching better reflects the modern baseball strategies employed today. Since 2014, quality appearances have remained steady despite the 30% drop we’ve seen in quality starts over that period.
I think using QA in a fantasy league is best suited for deep leagues, inherently deepening the pool of viable pitchers. Of the top 100 pitchers in QAs, 34 had 10 or fewer QS. I hope to employ quality appearances in the dynasty league I discussed at the top, which has 20 teams that would certainly appreciate an increase in viable pitchers.
Even if you don’t play in a larger league, QA shouldn’t skew the results of your league, especially if you’re transitioning from QS. The leaders in QA from 2022 are widely the same as the QS leaders, the only exceptions being Dylan Cease (25 QA, 16 QS), Carlos Rodón, Logan Gilbert (both with 24 QA, 16 QS), and José Quintana (23 QA, 9 QS). It’s hard to argue that these four pitchers shouldn’t be counted among the best this year.
Perhaps you balked at recognizing a 4-inning outing. You might like Fantrax’s QA3 instead, which requires at least 5 innings pitched with the same 4.50 ERA maximum.
That does bring up the biggest hitch in my argument: implementation. As of now, Fantrax is the only site that I know of allowing quality appearances to be used. CBS has a feature that allows custom stats to counted, though I do not know if they allow a calculation such as IP/ER=0.5. That means any league played on ESPN, Yahoo, or other hosting sites likely won’t have this option available to them.
So, if you’re fed up with wins and quality starts seeming almost arbitrary, consider talking to your league about switching the quality appearance. Oh, and if you do make this switch, go pick up Drew Rasmussen and thank me later!