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Fantasy Category Discussion: Quality Starts and Wins

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I'm starting a series discussing the pros and cons of some controversial fantasy baseball categories. Quality Starts and Wins are up first.

Shelby Miller personified the QS vs Wins debate in 2015 with just six wins in 21 quality starts.
Shelby Miller personified the QS vs Wins debate in 2015 with just six wins in 21 quality starts.
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

It's a debate that is as old as time, if time started in the 21st century: Quality Starts or Wins, which is the better category for fantasy baseball? Back in the ancient times of yore (you know, the 1980s and 90s), fantasy baseball was 4 x 4 or 5 x 5 in basically all leagues, or so I'm told. That meant R, RBI, AVG, HR, SB for hitters and K, ERA, WHIP, W, and SV for pitchers. 4 x 4 leagues dropped runs and K, in case you were wondering. Many of those categories have been replaced or added to in recent years, and for some good reasons.

Today I begin a series that will hopefully spark some good discussion, both in the comments section and within your leagues. I'm going to look at controversial "new school" categories and their older equivalents and weigh the pros and cons of each. This all gets kicked off with the question: "Are Quality Starts or Wins a better counting measure to add value to starting pitchers?"

Quality Starts

Pros:

The reasons to use quality starts are easier to quantify and easier for me to talk about, since I prefer the category myself. First and foremost, quality starts are entirely dependent on the starting pitcher (and his defense) and have no connection to his team's offense. The pitcher has significant control on whether he gets a quality start or not and it is a good evaluator of a pitcher's performance. More on this later. Like wins and strikeouts, they are a counting stat to balance out the two rate stats of ERA and WHIP. And while the minimum quality start of 6 innings with 3 earned runs is a poor 4.50 ERA, most quality starts actually have a much better ERA than that.

Cons:

That minimum requirement for a quality start is pretty bad. Furthermore, it is rigid and doesn't adjust with innings pitched. A better stat would require something like 5 innings with 2 ER or fewer, 6 innings with 2 ER or fewer, 7 innings with 3 ER or fewer, 8 innings with 3 ER or fewer, and 9 innings with 4 ER or fewer. Currently, a pitcher would not get a quality start for pitching 5 perfect innings and getting pulled, or even pitching nine innings with 4 ER, even though that is better than the 4.5 ERA you get in the basic QS.

Thus, managers with a quick hook become an issue. Tampa Bay last season is a great example, as their club philosophy was to pull starters before seeing the other lineup a third or fourth time, usually in the fifth inning. This was painful as a Nate Karns owner in a deep league with QS. He would pitch well for five innings and then be pulled. Another issue is that relievers can ruin a quality start. I can't count how many times my starter left in the seventh after allowing three or fewer runs and then a reliever comes on and allows inherited runners to score, blowing the quality start.

Wins

Pros:

Supporters of wins have a few things on their side. First, wins is a traditional stat that has been in fantasy baseball since the beginning. Second, real baseball is about winning games, not getting quality starts. Third, the random nature of wins is often viewed as a positive. Just like touchdowns in fantasy football, the fluky coin-flip nature of wins can create some good chaos in fantasy baseball leagues. Everyone uses the same rules, so the randomness will help as much as it hurts at various points in the season. Wins also reward pitchers that pitch deep into games. From Tristan Cockcroft's article linked below:

A pitcher's total innings pitched in the game in question does carry weight of its own in terms of his win potential. Again using 2013 data, consider:

" 68.9 percent of starts of 7 2/3+ innings resulted in a win.
" 48.5 percent of starts between 6 2/3-7 1/3 innings resulted in a win (with little variance between 6 2/3, seven or 7 1/3).
" 36.3 percent of starts between 6-6 1/3 innings resulted in a win.
" 24.4 percent of starts between 5-5 2/3 innings resulted in a win (with little variance between five, 5 1/3 or 5 2/3).
" 14.1 percent of starts shorter than six innings resulted in a win.

Finally, wins add value to middle relievers for leagues without holds (don't worry we'll have a post about saves/holds later). Middle relievers pick up the occasional win by having their team's offense take the lead in an inning they pitch in. In fact, due to the very flukey nature of reliever wins, some RP can get more wins than some starters. Last season, Wade Davis, J.J. Hoover, and Randall Delgado led all relievers with 8 wins each. That's as many as Jake Peavy, C.J. Wilson, and Kyle Hendricks. That's more than Scott Kazmir, Mike Fiers, and Nate Karns. Tony Watson had 10 wins in 2014, so double digits is in play in a given season.

Cons:

Wins are very dependent on offensive performance. A pitcher can pitch horribly and still get a win or pitch a gem (including a no-hitter) and get a loss. And, while pitching well certainly helps your team win the game, the opponent's pitcher has just as much impact on wins and losses as the pitcher you care about. It is hard for people like me who want every stat in fantasy to reflect individual performance and reward picking the most talented players instead of dumb luck to accept wins as a category. Tristan Cockcroft over at ESPN put together a really good piece about this argument in early 2014 (link here goes to another article that included this debate) and included some very nice stats that I'm going to quote here.

On wins versus quality starts:

In 2013, there were 213 minimum-qualification quality starts (i.e., a 4.50 ERA); but there were 211 wins by starting pitchers who had an ERA of 4.50 or higher. It was really no less likely that your pitcher would've captured a win than a quality start with such an outing, and let's not ignore that 145 of those wins were by pitchers whose game ERAs were five-plus.

By the way, 257 times last season a starter logged at least seven innings allowing one earned run or fewer without earning a win; but every one of them was a quality start!

On reliever wins:

To the latter point, consider that 62 of those 773 relief wins in 2013 came by pitchers who suffered a blown save, then subsequently had their teams rally to recapture them a lead. Fifty-eight of those 773, meanwhile, came from relievers who posted a 9.00 ERA or higher in the given outing, and 85 were recorded by relievers who allowed at least one earned run.

Just as a matter of perspective, on 95 occasions last season, a relief pitcher pitched at least two hitless, scoreless innings with three or more strikeouts without earning a win for his efforts. Was it necessarily fair that those 85 who afforded runs won, while these 95 did not?

To use more recent information, here are some of the pitchers in 2015 with single-digit win totals (ranking them in the 60-80 range among qualified starters in wins) despite above average to great pitching: Shelby Miller (6!!! wins), Mike Fiers, Scott Kazmir (both playing for a playoff team with a good offense), Jose Quintana, Corey Kluber, and Jake Odorizzi. Tyson Ross, Jon Lester, Johnny Cueto, and Gio Gonzalez were just barely in the double digits. Leagues with wins penalized these guys, despite very good pitching performances.

As you can see, there are pros and cons to both categories. One compromise I have seen is to include both categories. This can create an unbalanced set of pitcher categories, however, so strikeouts may have to be replaced with K/9 to keep relievers on an even keel and to keep the number of counting stats balanced with the number of rate stats. Also, to keep hitters and pitchers balanced, an additional hitting category might be needed. I still think the concept is interesting, but I've never been in a league with both categories, so I'm not sure how it shakes out. Has anyone tried it and liked it?

Like the debate about which James Bond was best (it's Connery), we aren't going to settle this issue today, but I hope it gets you thinking about these categories and allows you to make informed decisions about which ones you want in your leagues. Do you like the exciting randomness and reliever value of wins or the category that rewards true pitcher performance, even if that performance is mediocre and requires an arbitrary number of innings? The choice is up to you, until someone comes up with a new official stat that replaces both. Maybe some sort of Adjusted Quality Start? Maybe someday. Until next time, Tschus!