Quality Starts Leagues Primer (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
As analytics continue to dominate baseball, we can see its influence in our fantasy world as well. Namely, wins have long been considered vital in judging a pitcher’s influence on the game.
We now know better.
Indeed, wins have their value. The ability to out-pitch an opposing lineup is not something to ignore. But we also know that wins are a function of a number of factors. One of which is luck, which is not projectable.
Granted, we all need luck in order to win. Win a game on the mound. Win a fantasy championship. Luck is part of the equation, but as analytics progress, we understand that we can mitigate luck’s influence. We can find better statistics.
Enter quality starts.
Naturally, if we’re dissecting a statistic and replacing it with another, we have to be equally fair and recognize that no single metric is perfect. Quality starts (QS, for short) is no exception. It also has outside influences besides the pitcher’s ability — a manager’s desire to use the bullpen, for one — but QS answers one basic question for a given game. “Did the pitcher do enough to help win?” In other words, “Did the pitcher deliver a quality start?”
A QS is defined as any start of at least six innings pitched with no more than three earned runs allowed. Its main target is to reward a pitcher who not only limited runs, but went deep into the game. After all, these are the pitcher’s goals. And what should lead to a win.
The swap from wins to quality starts is becoming more common, but it is also fighting a new trend from Major League Baseball. Because teams are using openers — a starting pitcher not designed to throw more than a few innings — many pitchers will not be given the opportunity for a quality start. We must pick and choose our spots more carefully.
There is also the undeniable penalty given to relief pitchers in leagues with QS. Plain and simple, relievers have no ability to contribute there. A reliever can vulture a win, but it’s impossible to steal a QS. We exclusively want starting pitchers … who won’t get taken out of a game before the sixth inning.
The good news is that both sides of the QS statistic are linked. Most likely, if a pitcher is limiting runs, the innings will follow and vice versa. While there is a premium to pay for better pitchers, we aren’t necessarily looking for strikeouts. In fact, we often want contact early in the count that will lead to outs and extend a pitcher’s performance.
The following is a list of the top-30 projected wins leaders in MLB, courtesy of FantasyPros. Some of these pitchers will receive a value boost when swapping from wins to QS while others will take a hit.
Quality Start Gainers
Aaron Nola (PHI)
Aaron Nola has been every bit the ace that the Philadelphia Phillies expected when drafting him in 2014, yet he has only topped 12 wins once in his career. It’s through no fault of his own, as he touts an impressive 3.23 ERA over the last three seasons. Most importantly, Nola has eclipsed 200 innings in each of the last two years and completed the sixth inning in 21 of his 34 starts in 2019. Nola is an excellent fantasy asset in any league, but he gets another boost when considering quality starts.
Sandy Alcantara (MIA)
We can’t bury Sandy Alcantara solely due to the team for which he pitches, but the Miami Marlins would need to over-perform in order for him to reach 15 wins. More likely, his ceiling is closer to 12. FantasyPros has him projected for only nine, which would be the lowest total of any pitcher projected to throw at least 180 innings. Alcantara had 19 starts in 2019 in which he finished the sixth inning, yet remarkably led the National League in losses. Granted, Alcantara needs to improve on his own accord before we start blaming his team, but his own growth would be rewarded by a boost in quality starts compared to a low ceiling for wins.
Marco Gonzales (SEA)
A sneaky name on this list mixes the right combination of low strikeouts — again, quick outs — and a high number of innings pitched. As an added bonus, we also have a team with a low projected win total. Therein lies the value of the Seattle Mariners’ Marco Gonzales in a quality start league. He has the same uphill battle as the aforementioned Alcantara but is remarkably efficient. He pitched at least six innings 20 times in 2019 and threw less than 100 pitches in 12 of those outings. Gonzales was built for durability — starting 29 and 34 games over the last two seasons, respectively — and is the ideal sleeper with this tweak of the league settings. To further drive home the point: Of the 20 games in which he could have qualified for a quality start, Gonzales recorded 19. The co-leaders — Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole — had 26.
Trevor Bauer (CIN)
It might be unfair to include Trevor Bauer on a list largely dependent on team win totals, manly because the Cincinnati Reds arguably have the widest range of outcomes for any club this year. They are gaining momentum as a hot pick to over-perform, but they also have a lengthy history of disappointment. As a direct result, Bauer could prove to be a major contributor in both wins and quality starts. Removing the volatility of Cincinnati’s expectations from the equation, we still have a starting pitcher who finished third in innings pitched last season. Bauer will give length — he threw at least 100 pitches in 27 starts last year — and any shift toward the pitcher who finished sixth in the NL Cy Young Award vote in 2018 would create an excellent return on investment.
Jacob deGrom (NYM)
Simply put, Jacob deGrom slides into the top spot of starting pitcher rankings if using quality starts instead of wins. Looking at his last two seasons, it’s easy to see why. He finished 2018 and 2019 with ERAs of 1.70 and 2.43, respectively, yet he won a combined 21 games over that span. Read that again. DeGrom had two of the most dominant seasons in recent history and still couldn’t win 12 games in either campaign. Like Bauer, deGrom’s chances to win could increase with the success of his team, but we don’t need his team to improve. We need deGrom to continue along at his torrid pace and rack up one quality start after another.
Quality Start Fallers
Ryan Yarbrough (TB)
I mentioned openers in my introduction, and Ryan Yarbrough is arguably the first name that comes to mind. He wasn’t completely useless in the QS department, recording seven in 2019, but he averaged just over five innings per game in 14 starts. The problem — if we’ll call it that — is in Yarbrough’s name value carried over from wins leagues. He tallied 11 wins with a 1.00 WHIP. Still, he won’t be worth the investment in a QS league, even if he does win a traditional rotation spot. We simply can’t trust that he’ll stretch his outings through six innings on a regular basis.
Gerrit Cole (NYY)
One of the problems with paying a high price for a pitcher is that any deviation from the perfect ceiling could be catastrophic. In the case of Gerrit Cole, he is coming off one of the great seasons of the past decade, but thankfully shifts from one winning franchise to another. This, in turn, helps keep his wins total high. But what about quality starts?
It wasn’t a concern in 2019, as he tied Justin Verlander for the MLB lead in this category. However, Cole’s organization had a different incentive in 2019 as his new one does in 2020. The New York Yankees are invested in Cole for nine years. If he experiences any sign of trouble — especially with New York’s loaded bullpen — Cole’s outing will be over. Does this mean that the Yankees will have a short leash with their highly-coveted ace? Not always, but, again, any dip from the peak of production is concerning when targeting the first pitcher on the draft board.
Charlie Morton (TB)
Unfortunately for Charlie Morton, he misses the key ingredient we need for a pitcher seeking quality starts: length. Part of this comes from his high strikeout rate — at least, in theory, as he was efficient last year — but the bigger negative is his team’s desire to utilize the bullpen. Despite Morton’s outstanding 2019 season, he did not have a single start in which he went more than seven innings, and he threw fewer than 100 pitches 20 times. Morton had also never thrown more than 175 innings until last season. At age 36, it’s more likely that he declines than increases his production.
Josh Hader (MIL)
I’m obviously cheating by listing Josh Hader, but the purpose is to highlight just how dramatically the switch could impact a player’s value. Hader won’t start a single game with the Brewers, but it’s also not a guarantee that he will get every save opportunity. While this flexible role would give him the potential to contribute in other formats, it doesn’t work with quality starts. Any wins he could steal out of the bullpen will be lost in a QS-driven fantasy league.
Walker Buehler (LAD)
Much like Cole, Walker Buehler is entering a season with the potential to lead the majors in wins. Also like Cole, Buehler may be somewhat protected by his organization. The two are in different stages of their respective careers, but Buehler is still not a guarantee to reach 200 innings. He’s talented enough to make the most of those he tallies, but, if we’re splitting hairs and looking for a decrease in value due to quality starts, then Buehler is a prime candidate to slide a few spots in the starting pitching rankings.