Tagged: Chad Qualls

What Can Coin Flips Teach Us about Managing a Fantasy Team?

By Eriq Gardner //


Let’s talk about coin flips for a moment.
Imagine you have 100 coins in your hand and you dropped them on the ground. Let’s say 50 turned up “heads.” Now imagine you took those 50 coins that landed “heads” and dropped them again. Let’s say 25 turned up “heads” a second time. Now imagine dropping those 25. Let’s say 13 landed “heads.” Now image dropping those 13. Let’s say six coins landed “heads” a fourth time.
Imagine looking at those six coins. Do you think you’d see any unusual properties that would make them prone to landing on “heads”?
Of course not.
But when it comes to evaluating ballplayers, we tend to endow them with similar unusual properties.
Take Dan Haren, for example. 
As everyone knows, he’s “prone” to having bad second halves of the season. In his career, he’s got a 3.29 ERA before the All-Star Break and a 4.27 ERA afterwards. On this blog, Eno Sarris already covered how Haren’s peripheral stats in the second half aren’t to be feared. What will be overlooked by most is that Haren has always been a great first-half pitcher, yet didn’t live up to his reputation this year.
Do first-half/second-half splits mean anything? One regression study couldn’t find any predictive value in those splits.
In other words, Haren could very well be just like those coins that landed “heads” again and again and again and again.  In a large population, a small percentage will exhibit unusual behavior. 
For this reason, it’s not worthwhile to buy Haren’s teammate, Adam LaRoche, as a player sure to turn it on now. LaRoche has always been phenomenal throughout his career in the later stages of the season. His career OPS before the All Star Break? .776. His career OPS after the All Star Break? .905.
It doesn’t matter. 
If you flipped those six coins above that landed “heads” four times straight, maybe three would land “hands” a fifth time. But that also means three would land “tails.” A 50/50 proposition. That’s what you’re getting in betting that LaRoche will be a 900+OPS player from here on out.
Let’s move onto another Arizona Diamondback, Chad Qualls. Some might look at Qualls and see a great few months coming. He’s currently showing a 8.35 ERA, belying a 3.64 xFIP.
Might he be even better than that, due some great luck from all the horrible luck he’s had so far? Perhaps Qualls can get his closer gig back and become the best relief pitcher in baseball.
Back to the coins. Imagine those three special coins that landed “heads” five times straight. Are they due for “tails”? Nope. Still a 50/50 proposition. 
Betting that Qualls will outperform his underlying skills is the same as betting that those coins will turn up “tails.” Betting that Qualls is cursed is the same as betting those coins will turn up “heads.” Smart fantasy managing means not betting on hot streaks. It means finding a midpoint, and really reserving judgment on which way that coin will land.

For more insight to help you dominate your fantasy league, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kits.

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.QuallsGrab.jpg 

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 AZBully.jpgthe 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.

For more on would-be closers like Esmerling Vasquez, Aaron Heilman or Chad Qualls, check out Bloomberg Sports’ Fantasy Tools

True Value of Great Relievers, Part 2

By Eriq Gardner

In the first part of our look into the true value of great relievers, we described why great relievers contribute just as much value in ERA and WHIP as starters.

Simply put, a fantasy team’s ERA and WHIP is a function of the total amount of earned runs, hits, and walks given up over the total number of team innings pitched. What matters most is finding pitchers who will save a team’s ratios from damage by limiting the number of earned runs, hits, and walks allowed.

We showed why the advantage of having great relievers instead of bad relievers is comparable to having great starters instead of mediocre ones, and it’s almost time to explain how one can get a strategic edge by leveraging the full value of relievers.

But first, we need to quickly examine two concepts that also play a role in this discussion.
The first factor is variability.
In Part 1 of the study, we noted that Jonathan Broxton is expected to save eight runs over Leo Nunez, which is not an insignificant number. However, two bad games at the beginning of April where Broxton lets up a couple of unlucky grand slams erases that advantage. Over a long-term period, we can be confident that a player will live up to his skills. But in a small sample size like 75 IP, how can we safely say that Broxton will come close to his projected 2.76 ERA?
We can’t.
As visual proof, here’s two radar graphs which plot ERA vs. xFIP (a measure of what a pitcher’s ERA should be based on peripheral stats such as strikeout rate, walk rate and home run rate). On the left, you’ll see the 20 pitchers who pitched the most innings in baseball last year. On the right, you’ll see the 20 pitchers who gained the most saves last year. On the left, you see a little variability. On the right, you see a lot.

So if we can’t confidently project a reliever’s ERA, should we give up on the idea we should roster them with the expectation they’ll help in the category?
The more relievers that a team has on its roster, the more closely the relievers’ ERA in aggregate will match our expectations. For instance, the average difference between the above starters’ ERA and xFIP was 0.51. For the relievers, it was 0.58. Not that big a deal if a fantasy team is willing to invest in several relievers to get the job done. A couple might underperform. A couple might outperform. In total, they should do what we expect.
Next comes the concept of scarcity.
How much of an investment (via high draft picks) does one have to make on great relievers? And if we need them in bulk to be ensured of having an impact, are there simply too few great relievers out there?
It turns out there are quite a few great relievers in any given year, and as you’ll see below, you don’t need to spend much to build a strong bullpen. Players such as Mike Thornton, Mike Adams, Mike Wuertz, Matt Guerrier, George Sherrill, Ronaldo Bellisario, and Jason Frasor all put up an ERA last season that was more than a run under than the league average.

They are not alone. Yes, not all are closers, but remember that in our expansive view of the value of relievers, we’ve shown that they provide value beyond saves, and thus, it’s fair to consider middle relievers and set-up men too. In fact, anybody who looks at an in-season player rater (on service providers like ESPN) measuring the real value contributed by players will see quite a number of middle relievers near the top of the charts, largely on the strength of contributions in ERA/WHIP. Last year, for example, Wuertz was roughly the 38th most valuable pitcher in 5-by-5 roto leagues, ahead of solid closers like Francisco Cordero and good starters like Ryan Dempster.

Of course, fantasy teams need closers too, because saves do count. So now we start getting into the best strategy for rostering relievers via draft.
When looking at pitchers in general, we want to focus foremost on underlying skills — the ability to strike out batters, the ability to have control and limit walks, and the ability to limit damage by preventing line drives and home runs. A pitcher who displays these skills can be expected to save earned runs, hits, and walks over the long haul.
Some relievers such as Broxton, Mariano Rivera, Joakim Soria, and Heath Bell do all these things extraordinarily well and deserve a premium because of the added contributions they make in the saves category. It’s perfectly reasonable to select them high in drafts because they are providing strong value in ERA/WHIP plus racking up numbers in the scarcest of categories — saves.
There are other closers out there, including Frank Francisco and Chad Qualls, who also sport strong peripherals, but might get discounted because of perceived job insecurity. In the middle rounds, each makes a good target.
Finally, at the end of drafts, there’s a good quantity of middle relievers out there whose value in ERA/WHIP strongly outweighs starters being drafted late. If these great middle relievers contribute more value than mediocre starters, it makes sense to take them ahead of those mediocre starters. (Plus, these are the relievers who are most likely to be promoted to closer during the season — adding the prospect of even greater value.)
Anybody reading closely at this point might wonder about available roster room to gather all these relievers. Rostering depends a lot on context. The more roster spots per team in a given league, the more available room for relievers who will provide help in ERA/WHIP. A smaller bench might mean not as much opportunity to draft a heavy load of relievers.
That said, teams that acknowledge that late-round relievers can provide as much value in ERA/WHIP as early-round starters can use their biggest investments not on starters, but on stable hitters who won’t require back-ups, nor replacements. Having a team built upon stellar relievers saves high draft picks for a killer offense, which then saves bench room for more pitchers.
Relievers also tend to post much higher strikeout rates than starters. A team that relies heavily on reliever
s — mixing in some mid-to-late round starters with great strikeout rates such as Jonathan Sanchez and Jorge De La Rosa — can compete strongly in the category of strikeouts too.
What this all adds up to is the prospect that one can take advantage of a market inefficiency based on the wrongful assumption that relievers don’t contribute much value beyond saves. It turns out they go a long way to helping a fantasy team do extremely well in four of five pitching categories, at an amazingly cheap investment. By correctly leveraging relievers, fantasy teams can relax on starting pitchers and focus on winning five offensive categories. This is extremely enticing. 
What’s the real lesson here? Perhaps it’s that the true value of great relievers lies in the fact that most people don’t recognize their greatness. 
For more information on good pitching options, check out Bloomberg Sports’ fantasy kit