Turning Elite Sans Reputation

Generally speaking, the small samples sizes of playing time makes it particularly difficult to track trends in the stat-lines of relievers over a few seasons. After all, how do we know the numbers are not going through anything more than random fluctuations? When a slew of metrics tend to flock in the same direction over a predetermined period of time, it stands to reason that the pitcher has made significant strides in his abilities. One would think that such an improvement might add the pitcher to the list of elite relievers, but some are occasionally overlooked in spite of their success due to a lack of a reputation.

In 2005, Chad Qualls was a very reliable reliever for the Houston Astros, posting a solid 3.28 ERA and 3.75 FIP in 79.2 innings. His efforts were largely overshadowed by the three headed monster that was Roger ClemensRoy OswaltAndy Pettitte and a fantastic season from Brad Lidge. The next season, his K/9 fell from 6.78 to 5.68 with a rise in BB/9 from 2.60 to 2.84. Qualls allowed more homers as well, increasing his ERA to 3.76 and his FIP to 4.50. Despite logging nine more frames, Qualls lost a half of a win, dropping from 0.7 to 0.2 wins above replacement.

After the disappointing 2006 campaign, Qualls reverted to previously established norms with his pitch selection and threw his fastball 61 percent of the time; only throwing fastballs and sliders, Qualls had jumped to 68 percent with the heater in the year before. Both the fastball and slider were delivered at slightly greater velocities as well, and Qualls looked like a completely different pitcher.

His strikeout rate rose substantially from 5.68 to 8.49 and he cut back on walks as well. Qualls increased his O-Swing from 26% to 35% while reducing contact made on these pitches from 48% to 40%. Hitters were fooled by his pitches and could not muster as much contact as they had done before. Following a trade to the Diamondbacks for Jose Valverde before the 2008 campaign, Qualls continued the late inning dominance, putting up a 2.81 ERA and 2.77 FIP in 73.2 innings. His strikeout rate again jumped, this time to 8.67, but more significantly, Qualls reduced his BB/9 from 2.72 to 2.20.

Combined with a drastic dropoffs in HR/9 from 1.09 to 0.49, Qualls added two whole wins to the Diamondbacks, a mark only the elite relievers tend to hover around. This season, Qualls has again exhibited improvements in his controllable skills, jumping to a 9.86 K/9 and shaving more walks to the tune of a 1.71 BB/9. Though he still throws nothing more than a fastball and slider, and his fastball has been delivered much more frequently lately, Qualls boasts a 2.29 FIP through 21 innings. At 0.7 wins already, he is well on pace to repeat or surpass last season’s career bests.

Much of his success is derived from keeping the ball on the ground, evident in his career groundball rate of 59 percent. This season, however, Qualls has allowed 56 balls to be put in play and an astounding 73.2 percent (41 total) have been worm-beaters. He holds a substantial league lead in that department, but would fall to 35th since 1954 if the rate can be sustained. The highest groundball rate for a pitcher with at least 35 games pitched belongs to Chad Bradford, in 2001, when he induced 80.8% of his balls in play to be put on the ground.

ZiPS likes Qualls to regress in his controllable skills as the season bears on, but I would also tend to think his high BABIP, currently inflating his ERA, will also regress. These regressions might not cancel each other out, but given his recent track record of improvements, the evidence suggests that Qualls would gravitate more closely to the 2.29 FIP than to the 3.43 ERA. Regardless, Qualls has turned himself into a high strikeout, low walk, groundball pitcher and is further cementing himself as an elite reliever in the making, if not one already. The reputation isn’t there yet but the numbers certainly suggest that the Diamondbacks have at least one consistent stud in the bullpen.

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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.

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It seems odd, but I remember Qualls being more widely recognized in his early days in Houston when he was overshadowed by Lidge, et al, just because he was part of the emerging bullpen corps that people were so excited about in Houston (I remember Lidge, Wheeler, and Qualls being talked about a lot, at least as a group if not so much individually), than now when he is the man in Arizona. He’s clearly gotten better, and he’s finally settled into a closer role for a team, but there’s something about the hype around guys, warranted or not, when they first emerge that fades quickly if they don’t become stars in a couple years that can be hard to overcome in later years.

Maybe my recollection is influenced by being an NL Central fan, and he wasn’t really talked about all that much nationally, but even in Phoenix now it doesn’t feel like he’s as big a deal as he seemed in those early years with Houston.

It probably hasn’t helped him build a reputation either that he is closing in on 5 full years in the Majors and has only accumulated 27 career saves (still the glamour stat for relievers to a lot of fans) and that star relievers seem to emerge and fade every year, so that we’re reluctant to acknowledge a veteran’s turnaround until he keeps it up a few years. It seems from the stats you cite, Qualls is well on his way to being there, but unfortunately for him, those stats on their own aren’t always the ones that catch people’s eyes until they are already on the radar. If he can keep this up as a closer, and the saves and maybe an All Star appearance or two follow, hopefully his reputation will catch up with his performance.