January 21, 2011
The Chad Qualls Situation
There are seasons where everything goes wrong for players, and 2010 was that year for Chad Qualls. Even coming off that horrific kneecap dislocation he suffered trying to avoid a liner off the bat of Jason Michaels, but there was a lot to like with Qualls from a skills perspective. The right-hander had improved his BB/9 in four consecutive seasons, was coming off back to back solid WHIP seasons because of it, held a solid K/9, and jumped his K/BB from 2.0 in 2006 all the way up to 6.4 in 2009 before he was injured. His SIERA had improved each of the previous four seasons from 3.93 down to 2.80, and he was coming off six consecutive seasons of ground ball rates above 56 percent. More concisely, there was little to be concerned with for Qualls heading into 2010 as he had a statistical foundation that looked about as good as it could look for a non-elite closer.
Maybe he took some of Jobu’s rum or he was unwilling to sacrifice a live chicken. Whatever the case, Qualls had an unholy level of statistical bad fortune hit him all at once. His walk rate nearly tripled, his home run rate spiked, his BABIP was nearly equal to Ted Williams’ batting average in 1941, and he stranded barely half of his inherited baserunners. His 7.32 ERA was more than double his 2009 ERA but his 3.85 SIERA truly illustrates his misfortunes last season both in Arizona and in Tampa Bay.
Awful does not begin to describe Qualls’ luck in Arizona last year. He had an 8.1 K/9 and a 2.3 K/9, but he was only stranding 52 percent of his baserunners. His HR/FB rate was in line with his career averages and his groundball rate was only slightly off his career norms, but he lost his role as a closer once he could not get his ERA below 8.00. He was moved into a terrific defensive situation in Tampa Bay, but his fortunes did not get noticeably better. His BABIP came down closer to his career average but he still let 43 percent of his inherited runners score, and his last pitch as a Rays player was the fourth strike home run he gave up to Michael Young that may or may not have landed yet.
Qualls never came out and said as much, but maybe he just was not fully recovered from the knee injury from September. We can see the difference with a look into his splits though. The data from the table below is courtesy of statcorner.com from years 2007 to 2010:
From 2007 to 2009, Qualls was above the league average in every one of the metrics referenced above. In 2010, he was no better than average in any of them. His swinging strike rate (SwStr%) was nearly half of what it was in 2007 and because of it, batters were making more contact when swinging at pitches within the strike zone (zSw%) and striking out less (K%, kS%). Even more noticeable was how less frequently batters chased outside of the strike zone. Mike Fast is the resident pitch f/x expert, but when a pitcher’s oMs% drops twelve percentage points in one season, that tells me the action on his bread and butter pitch is not the same. In Qualls’ case, that would be his sinker that has the life of a splitter when he is on his game.
His struggles in 2010 were very reminiscent of two different starting pitchers in 2009: Carl Pavano and Ricky Nolasco. Pavano had a 5.10 ERA (3.92 SIERA) despite a 3.8 strikeout to walk rate and a 6.6 K/9 while Nolasco had a 5.06 ERA (3.04 SIERA) despite an extremely strong 9.5 K/9 and a 4.4 strikeout to walk ratio. Both pitcher presented strong buying opportunities for the wise fantasy player who noticed the dramatic difference between ERA and SIERA, but only Pavano paid in full for investors. Standard AL-Only players saw Pavano earn $15 while Nolasco earned just $9 in standard NL-only leagues.
Qualls signing in San Diego is going to limit his ability to maximize his ROI even if his ERA and SIERA are similar, as Heath Bell is likely not going anywhere and Mike Adams and Luke Gregerson are also firmly entrenched in their bullpen roles. However, if you are in a league that counts holds, you need to keep an eye on Qualls. Not only is he moving to an extremely cozy pitcher’s park, he is moving to a team and manager that piles up holds.
In 2010, Luke Gregerson led all of baseball with 40 holds while his teammate Mike Adams had 37. Those totals are good for first and second all-time in a single season. In 2009, Gregerson was fifth in the league with 27 holds while Adams had 15 in just 37 innings pitched. In all, that is 67 holds for Gregerson and 52 for Adams over the past two seasons. In 2010, the Padres as a team had 111 holds–25 more than any other team in baseball, and in the previous season, they were second only to the Marlins.
Heath Bell is a free agent after this coming season and the Padres are not projected to be a contending team in 2011, meaning Bell is just as likely to stay in San Diego all season as he is to be traded before the trade deadline. If a trade happens, Adams likely jumps into the closer role and Gregerson becomes the primary set-up man, which gives Qualls first crack at the higher leverage job that has piled up 67 holds over the last two seasons.
Qualls should be in for a nice rebound in 2011 simply because no pitcher can be that unlucky for two consecutive seasons (assuming his knee is healed). That rebound should be accentuated by some very cozy surroundings and the motivation of having his $6 million option picked up by the Padres for 2012. Qualls makes an excellent end-game target in standard NL-only leagues, but an even stronger target in those that count holds because his fortunes could get even better in the second half of the season.