I’ve been thinking about Chad Qualls this week, because… well, because no one can stand thinking about Ervin Santana any longer, probably, but also because when I wrote about the Astros a few days ago, I linked to an Eno Sarris post over at RotoGraphs about the Astros bullpen. Eno briefly touched on how Qualls, who had been reliably the butt of jokes for several years, had returned to his old mechanics, helping him have something of a quietly successful 2013.
Since Qualls signed with Houston during that insane first week of December when there were approximately 40 new signings each day, we never really wrote him up, instead touching on him here and there. While that’s partially because middling relievers don’t always deserve their own posts, mechanical changes are always a bit fascinating when it comes to changes in performance — just check out the difference in where Jayson Werth held his hands during his monster second half last year. That being the case, I thought it’d be interesting to track down the source there and check this out.
Qualls isn’t a star, and he’s not going to keep the Astros out of the basement, but he was once a useful reliever, and if a mere mechanical change has turned him into a better pitcher, then the Astros haven’t only signed a useful veteran to improve a dreadful bullpen, they’ve also added someone who might be a mild trade asset in July, especially if he’s managed to pile up saves as a Capital-C closer. (Yes, most teams are smarter than that. Other teams give Brandon League three years and Jonathan Papelbon $50 million.)
In his “prime,” which we’ll set at roughly 2007-09, Qualls was a valuable, if far from elite, reliever. In one year for Houston (the first time around) and two with Arizona, mostly as Arizona’s closer after being included in the deal that sent Jose Valverde to the Astros, Qualls pitched 208.1 innings, striking out just under a man per inning (194) while walking about a quarter as many (50), good for a 3.8 K/BB. Over those three years he pitched to a 3.11 ERA, for what limited use reliever ERA can provide; he was one of only 25 relievers to throw 200 innings over that span, and he was top 10 in both ERA and FIP. It seems like a long time ago, because it was, but there was a time where Qualls was a pretty good guy to have in your bullpen.
That time pretty much ended on August 30, 2009, when Qualls twisted awkwardly attempting to field a grounder on the final pitch of a game against Houston, dislocating his left knee, requiring surgery and ending his season. In 2010, split between Arizona and Tampa Bay, Qualls was awful, pitching to a 7.29 ERA while seeing his swinging-strike percentage dip below 10.0 for the first time, down to 8.2%. It was only slightly better in 2011 in San Diego — though you’ll see in a second that Qualls disagreed, thanks only to ERA — and so heading into 2012, the Phillies giving him even $1.15m seemed pretty questionable. Qualls bounced between three teams that year, while his swinging-strike percentage sunk to 7.6%, and his K/9 was a mere 4.64. 134 relievers threw at least 50 innings in 2013; only two — both Twins, naturally, Jeff Gray and Alex Burnett — had a lower K/9.
That left him unable to get more than a minor-league invite from the Marlins in 2013, but suddenly he was a different pitcher. His swinging-strike percentage lept back to 10.9%, his highest since 2008. He threw more grounders than ever before; he allowed fewer homers than ever. And while a Houston front office made up mostly of former internet baseball writers isn’t going to put stock in ERA, it’s hard to not at least point out his shiny 2.61 mark.
Enough background, though — let’s get into the GIFs. When Qualls signed in December, Evan Drellich of the Houston Chronicle collected this quote:
The righthander changed his landing following the injury out of concern for the knee, and in doing so, he changed his way of throwing.
“I changed my mechanics a little bit to alleviate some pressure off that landing leg,” Qualls said. “I used to throw a little bit more erratic, and my leg used to swing over. I did that my whole career in Houston and Arizona. Then I got away from doing that once I got hurt. I was just kind of babying that left leg and I did it for the next two, two and a half years. Even when I was in San Diego, and I had a pretty good year, I (still was doing it). My right leg usually swings over my left, kind of how Brad Lidge used to throw. You just fall off to that first-base side. I was just kind of landing like (Greg) Maddux, in a fielding position — and that’s not me at all.”
Let’s test that out with video. Here’s Qualls during his Arizona peak, inducing a grounder to end a game on May 6, 2009, before the injury:
Now let’s jump ahead to his short stint with the Pirates in 2012, during an appearance in which he was lit up by the Dodgers, allowing four hits and a walk to six batters:
The camera angles aren’t identical, but the difference is clear. In the 2009 clip, despite giving up a grounder to the third base side of the infield, Qualls’ right leg swings around so much on his follow-through that he has to turn around 360 degrees to see the ball. In the 2009 clip, the leg stops, exactly as he said.
Now here he is with the Marlins last summer:
Miguel Olivo can’t hold onto the ball — he’d play his last game with the Marlins three days later — but Qualls is back to his old tricks, kicking that right leg over the left, although not quite to the full extent it was in that particular Arizona pitch from above. The difference in his vertical release point over the years is obvious; without having to worry about his knee, Qualls is free to fully follow through on his motion.
We can easily see the effects in velocity…
…and changing the scale slightly, the whiff percentage on his slider was trending back in the right direction again:
Now let’s not go overboard here, of course: Qualls is entering his age-35 season, and he’ll turn 36 in August. At his best, he was merely good, and it’s fair to say that Houston’s questionable defense might not be the best place to make his sinkerball tendencies stand out, other than third baseman Matt Dominguez. Still, he was once pretty useful, and regaining some ability to miss bats, limit walks and keep the ball on the ground could make him useful once again. For a team like Houston, desperate to add whatever they can to make the major league product a bit more watchable — and maybe to convert a signing into some talent down the road — it’s exactly the right kind of chance to be taking. If he can keep doing what he did last year and come somewhere near what he was doing when he was good, no one will be laughing about the $6 million investment in a pitcher who was on a minor league deal and seemingly cooked just a year ago… as long as he cools it with the fist pumps, anyway.
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