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Against Quality Starts - PART III



I have long advocated for the abolition of quality starts as a scoring category in fantasy baseball, particularly in rotisserie formats. The main argument in previous posts, which you can read here and here, is that quality starts are dying a slow and painful death as the manner in which starting pitchers are used changes. Starting pitchers, the argument goes, are not pitching deep into games with regularity, and relievers are being utilized earlier in games and with more frequency. In support of this argument, I have annually tracked and graphed out the steady decline in quality starts over the last decade. I'm going to hide the football (baseball? does that work?) for a moment and re-share the graphic from last off-season:

What was clear at this time last year was that the 2020 short season reduction to 1404, which is a prorated number to begin with, is an outlier. Between a truncated spring training and a 60-game season, we simply could not use that prorated number as a reliable figure in the trend. Thus, I considered the 1,585 quality starts in 2021 a continuation of the steady decline that began in 2015.


The big question for me following both the 2020 and 2021 season was where is the bottom? Well, we may have found it. Here is the graph updated to include 2022:

2022 finally plotted clear above the trend line. I was admittedly surprised because I assumed with no doubt that quality starts had declined again. Perhaps we have found the bottom of quality starts, somewhere between that prorated 2020 and 2021 follow-up. Perhaps 2022 is a dead cat bounce and we will see continued decline in 2023. Given that 2022 looks a lot like 2019, which was the last normal season before the short season of 2020, my guess is that the 1,600 to 1,800 range is the new normal. Time will tell.


I feel more confident in predicting that the totals we saw in 2011 to 2014 are not coming back. We simply know enough about how pitcher use is changing to comfortably assume that quality starts will not increase by 1,000 per year any time soon. So while the increase in 2022 blew a hole in my assumptions about a continued decline, it does not change the major point: Quality starts are no longer as abundant as they once were and it raises serious doubts about continue to utilize them as a fantasy category.


Wind the clock back to 2010. If you have been playing fantasy for a long time, you'll remember that it was around that time when quality starts came into popularity. The argument went like this: My starter pitched a decent game and his crummy offense didn't score any runs! Or it went like this: Pitcher X gave up five runs and still got the win. That's not fair! These kinds of gripes reached a fever pitch and quality starts were out there as an alternative people looked to in increasing numbers. It happened fast. I was part of it.


What people failed to recognize at the time were a number of valid arguments the other way. First, a good number of the traditional counting stat categories we use are heavily reliant upon team context. That is certainly true of runs, RBI, and, most of all, saves. We take those things into consideration when drafting and working the waiver wire. With saves, strategies have changed over time in a way that reflects how the real life game has changed. It is worth pointing out that as saves have become more spread out across team bullpens, some of the lost value in rostering relievers who are not traditional closers has been made up by more wins falling to relievers instead of starters. Look at the trends:

(Note: I calculated SP wins as all wins that went to pitchers who made at least one start. It is obviously more complicated than that,

but nevertheless provides an accurate proxy for this discussion. Also note that 2020 is excluded.)


Leagues that stuck with wins as a category naturally evolved along with these trends. Leagues with quality starts experienced both (a) a rapid decline in the number of quality starts, while (b) not being able to take advantage of more wins falling to relievers during an era of fewer go-to closers.


If you remain unconvinced, consider this: the number of quality starts can fluctuate and decline, but wins remain constant. They can fall to a starter or a reliever, but every game has a winning pitcher.

(Note: 2020 Excluded)


While we may have reached the bottom on quality starts, continuing to use it as a scoring category is a choice to use an flawed category that is hundreds fewer in quantity. There was a time when the conversation around quality starts was worth having, but that fleeting moment has passed. Go back to wins.


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Thanks for reading!

- Russell

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