When the Colorado Rockies announced their first two major free agent acquisitions of the winter on Tuesday, we paid our first attentions to Jason Motte, the younger flamethrower of the two arms signed on a more expensive contract with likely more upside coming in to 2016.
But the other pitcher, Chad Qualls, deserves credit for filling up the strike zone and giving the Rockies an option for pretty consistent middle and late relief. While he faded down the stretch in Houston in 2015, Qualls' role in Denver is different, and he's now part of an organization that need not win now, anyways. Taking into account his track record, he's a worthy gamble for just $6 million over two years.
Scouting Chad Qualls
Qualls has had a long career (12 years), he's pitched for just about everybody (Houston, Arizona, Tampa Bay, San Diego, Philadelphia, New York, Pittsburgh, Miami, and then Houston again), and he's appeared in a lot of games. Here's one important point from Matt Gross' post on Wednesday morning about Qualls:
[Qualls] made more appearances than any pitcher in baseball over the last ten years, and it's possible that he ran out of gas late last season as nine of his last 14 appearances were for less than an inning. This is a big reason why Houston didn't resign him and is probably the biggest concern with the contract. Every pitcher hits a wall at some point, and Qualls may have hit his at the end of 2015. The Rockies are betting against that. We'll see.
Here's the full list of pitchers who have made the most appearances in the last decade. The 37-year-old righty has been a workhorse, but durable pitchers are durable until they're not. Maybe it happens this year. Hopefully it doesn't! Regardless, Qualls will make less in his two years in Denver than Boone Logan made in his disastrous 2014 season alone, so Qualls isn't as ill-informed of a gamble should he hit the proverbial wall sooner rather than later.
As far as his results, the southern California native and University of Nevada, Reno product hasn't put up some of the impressive seasons of his now-teammate Motte, but nevertheless has been a consistent relief option for more than a decade. Here are Qualls' stats with the work he's put in the last three years with the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins:
Qualls has been especially on point the last two years in Houston, where combined (118 games), he allowed just 1.3 BB/9 while logging 8.0 K/9 and a 6.36 K:BB ratio over 100 innings pitched. And although his ERA has risen each of the last several seasons, his FIP numbers have remained fairly steady, perhaps indicating he's pitching better than the final stats credited his way.
While Qualls' strikeout rates have been decent the last few years, another asset he historically possesses has been his ability to get ground balls; after logging a 59.9% ground ball rate in 2015 (and a 57.9% rate for his career), the Rockies will no doubt count on him for that next summer. The ground ball rate makes sense when acknowledging Qualls' pitch splits; the righty throws a 91 mph sinker three out of every five pitches, complemented by an 86 mph slider the other 40% of the time. He's consistent against both righties and lefties; hitters overall have slashed .264/.315/.392 against him over twelve years, win a .707 OPS.
So he's been fairly proficient at limiting baserunners, he misses his fair share of bats and gets a ton of ground balls, and lately he's been absolutely filling up the strike zone. All of those traits are certainly assets relative to relievers the Rockies have run out there over the last few years, and now the question becomes whether 2015's fade is indicative of the end of Qualls' career, or just a tough time for a reliever with some gas left in the tank.
There are some troubling stats, of course; allowing a hit an inning over his big league career and 1.1 HR/9 in 2015 may paradoxically suggest Qualls is throwing too many strikes. But after the Rockies dealt with heavy walk totals from relievers like Tommy Kahnle, Rex Brothers, and John Axford last summer, it's clear Qualls' addition serves one notable purpose.
Looking at his game log from this past summer in Houston, Qualls only gave up multiple runs in seven of his 60 appearances, but the last month of the schedule was tough on the righty. After allowing hitters to slash just .174/.174/.217 in July and .167/.205/.333 in August, Qualls hit the wall in September, and hitters slashed .387/.375/.548 against him with a wild .478 batting average on balls in play that month. Now, the Rockies will soon figure out whether September 2015 was a canary in the coal mine on Qualls' career, or just an aberration for a veteran reliever.
Here's one of the more unforgettable moments from Qualls' career:
I share that because LOL! But it also gives us multiple angles of Qualls' delivery. He lands with a very stiff front leg and has a lazy front side, with his glove-arm flying open unlike some other pitchers with strong glove-arm action. While it's not true of all pitchers who predominantly throw the pitch, other sinkerballers are similar to Qualls in not using their glove-arm as completely as power pitchers.
Also, maybe Qualls has a problem:
"They signed a pitcher who can't even walk without falling down?! Typical Rockies move."
Qualls' best comparison on the Rockies
Knowing how few walks Qualls allows, there (sadly) isn't much of a decent comparison in the Rockies' bullpen right now, at least not unless you consider Jason Motte. Both are veterans who throw strikes and have a lot of back-end bullpen experience. Perhaps the best comp from a recent Rockies team (but not his 2015 version) would be Rafael Betancourt; before the Venezuelan's career ended this past summer, he was a prolific strike-thrower, to say the least, and his time in Denver turned out well for all involved.
Qualls probably won't have as much success with Colorado the next two season as Betancourt did up until this past summer, but here's hoping the newcomer's time at Coors Field skews more towards the '09 to '12 version of Betancourt, and less the '15 showing.
What to expect in 2016
Qualls likely won't be given quite as important a role in the late innings as Motte, at least to start the year, but a strong showing by either (or both) only bolsters the Rockies' bullpen in the short term and makes the team slightly more watchable during what will be a tough season, anyways.
Qualls is here to buy time for young talent in the Rockies' organization like Sam Moll, Carlos Estevez, Scott Oberg, Jairo Diaz, and even Nelson Gonzalez and Matt Carasiti. A year or two of Qualls for a couple million bucks, and before we know it, the young kids will be locking down the bullpen. Assuming he's healthy and effective enough, the Rockies ought to field calls about Qualls in July 2016, over the winter a calendar year from now, and in July 2017 (assuming they hold on to him that long) from other teams looking for relief depth, too.
If Qualls is truly awful and completely irredeemable — which, sure, I guess that could happen — the entire value of his contract is still worth less than a single season of Boone Logan. A complete collapse is unlikely, of course, but an average of $3 million a year for a veteran reliever with a good track record is more or less as low of a risk as one can find. As the rebuild (presumably) continues, Qualls' addition is cheap, simple, and will likely end with the Rockies receiving a young player for him in a trade at some point in the next two seasons. Not hatin' that.