Fantasy Tumbleweeds: Who Will Be the Arizona Closer?
By Eno Sarris //
Going into this season, Chad Qualls was a solid sleeper for saves. He had never had an ERA above 3.76, or a WHIP above 1.27, in his entire career since his 2004 debut with the Astros. If you prefer more advanced stats, he had just finished a three-year stint in which he had struck out more than eight batters per game and walked fewer than two and a half. His groundball rate had never fallen below 56.7%, making him one of the most extreme worm-burners in the game.
He may not have been in a large media market, and he didn’t put up double-digit strikeout rates like some of the more prominent closers, but Qualls looked solid and there was no immediate threat to his role in the bullpen. In some ways, not much has changed, though he’s now derided instead of (mildly) celebrated.
Qualls still has a strikeout rate above average for all pitchers – his 7.44 career K/9 is above the major league average, which hovers between 6.6 and 7 K/9. This year, his 9.27 K/9 is even above average for a reliever. If you take all appearances by all relievers this year, the major league average K rate for relief pitchers is 7.78. There’s a clue here about Qualls’ stuff: In an average year, he only strikes out batters at about an average rate. But he’s bettered that this year, so that’s not his ‘problem.’
If you look at Qualls xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching, which uses aspects of the game controlled by the pitcher and strips out batted ball and home run or park effect luck and produces a number on the ERA scale), he’s had a typical season. He now owns a 3.55 xFIP, right near his strong career number (3.45). So why has Qualls struggled from a fantasy perspective? Check out how bad it has been compared to your top 10 major league closers, by the Bloomberg Sports Fantasy Tools spider graphs on the right.
One thing that comes to mind is that pitchers with high groundball rates are at risk of giving up more seeing-eye singles. This year, a high number of batted balls he has given up have either been line drives (22.5%) or found its way to undefended grass: Qualls’ .474 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is the highest for any pitcher with at least 10 innings pitched. To make matters worse, Qualls is only stranding 51.8% of runners, vs. league average of about 70%.
The standard refrain might be to say that he’s been wildly unlucky and that he will be fine. As a relief pitcher, there’s no way he’ll pitch enough innings for his numbers to regulate by year’s end. From now until the end of the season, his luck could well turn. But the Diamondbacks might not be patient enough to let Qualls spring back into form – especially not in a rebuilding season, when they might explore younger options instead and possibly trade Qualls to a contending team looking for help in the set-up role.
So we are left with the fact that his future is uncertain, despite an inkling that his true talent level is by far and away the best in that Arizona bullpen. It’s a poor pen – the worst in the majors by ERA with a 7.33 ERA (Milwaukee is second with a 5.86 number), and the heir apparent, Juan Gutierrez, has had issues of his own. Gutierrez is only coaxing 27.5% groundballs, and so has given up an astounding 4.22 HR/9 so far. He has a lot of work to do to regain the Closer of the Future mantle.
Remaining in the quiver are a duo of underwhelming pitchers at different ends of their careers. Aaron Heilman and Esmerling Vasquez hold the dubious distinction of the being the only two with ERAs under 5.00 in that pen. When manager A.J. Hinch said he was going to explore other options at the closer position, somewhere inside he probably wondered which options he had, because even these two players are flawed.
Since the team may look to rebuild, it’s worth looking at the younger of the two ‘options.’ Vasquez is a former starter who has shown flame-throwing ability in the pen (94.2 MPH fastball over his short, two-year career), but hasn’t been able to harness his fastball/change arsenal. His 4.88 BB/9 career is almost a full run worse than the average reliever this year (3.94 BB/9). Some wildness might play in the pen (see the higher walk rate for relievers), but this is pushing it. Then again, he gets almost 10% more groundballs than Gutierrez, so he’s got that going for him.
Heilman, on the other hand, doesn’t strike out batters at an average rate, at least this year. Not only is his strikeout rate below-average (7.22 K/9), but he doesn’t supplement it with a good groundball rate like Qualls does (27.1% this year, 43.6% career). He hasn’t had an xFIP under 4.00 for four years. He’s stranding 85.4% of his batters and giving up an unsustainably low 7.3% home runs per fly ball rate (that number trends towards 10% across baseball, is 10.4% for Heilman’s career, and Heilman plays in a home-run friendly park that augments home runs by 21.5%).
But Heilman is a veteran with an ERA under 3.00, so he may get a shot. Vasquez is the more interesting option for the DBacks if they are going to keep an eye on the future, and Qualls is the one who probably deserves the spot based on his underlying skill set and track record. Still, take one last look at how bad this bullpen is, with stats from Fangraphs.com, and you’ll see Hinch’s problem in full focus (click for the full image).
Fantasy owners might as well act like they were in control of the big league club here. If you’re building for the future, you might want to pick up Vasquez and see if he can become the future closer. If you’re playing for now, you might as well keep Qualls and hope his true talent wins out in the end. If you are scratching for any save, any save at all, and have a roster spot to burn – Heilman might be worth a speculative pickup.
Update: Today, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride continued for Conor Jackson as he was traded to the Oakland Athletics. Coming back is Triple-A closer Sam Demel. Demel has had some control issues in the past (4.5 BB/9 career in minors), but has cut those walks this year (2.8 BB/9) and has strikeout stuff (10 K/9 career in minors). He could very well be a candidate for saves this year, but will not only have to be processed and called up, but he will have also have to show he can replicate his success in the major leagues before he can be taken very seriously. Deep leaguers competing for the title this year with minor league spots to burn should take notice.