Over the weekend the two best teams in baseball acquired relievers in salary dumps from two teams clearly out of contention. The Yankees picked up Kerry Wood from the Indians, with the Indians agreeing to pay $2.17M of the remaining $3.67M on his contract while the Yankeeswood pay $1.5M. The Indians can also receive $200K from the Yankees if Wood stays healthy. Meanwhile the Rays picked up Chad Qualls from the Diamondbacks, agreeing to pay the remaining $1.48M on his contract. Two contenders, two salary dumps, two relievers with upside: who wins?
Kerry Wood’s story is one of woe, much like the Lifetime original movie “A Dog Took My Face and Gave me a Better Face to Change the World: The Celeste Cunningham Story“, except Wood was shot in the arm, not the face, and the shooter was Dusty Baker, not a dog. Wood has been a reliever since 2005, pitching in relief for the Cubs and the Indians. 2006 and 2007 were injury-plagued years for Wood, but over the course of the past five years he’s managed to drag his tired body on to the mound and hurl 252 innings, striking out 282 (10.1 K/9), walking 106 (3.8 BB/9) with an ERA of 4.03 and an ERA+ of 110. This year has been worse, but Wood has only pitched 21 innings on the year and could be finally rounding into form. In his first outing as a Yankee, he loaded the bases but struck out the side.
The Yankees’ main competition in the American League acquired RHP Chad Qualls from the Diamondbacks. Qualls is the current posterboy for big discrepancy between on-field results and advanced peripherals. Long a solid reliever for both the Astros and the Diamondbacks, Qualls hit a bit of a speed bump in 2010. Over 38.2 innings his ERA is 8.15, higher than his K/9 rate of 7.9. His hit rate has ballooned to 14.2 per 9, up from a career average of 8.9. At the same time, Qualls has an astounding BABIP of .427 and a strand rate of 51.4%, both well off league norms. As a result, his FIP is a meager 4.28 and his xFIP is even lower at 3.83. As Joe Pawlikowski noted on Fangraphs on Saturday, his stuff appears intact:
His fastball sits at the same velocity as it has in the past, and he’s using it at just about the same rate. Looking at this PitchFX page, everything appears to be in line with his past performance. It’s a bit dicey comparing PitchFX from year-to-year — I’ve noticed a number of pitchers who have “lost” horizontal movement this year, so there are definitely some consistency issues at play — but there don’t appear to be too many differences for Qualls.
So there is reason to suspect that Qualls could rebound. At the same time, it’s hard to ignore just how hard Qualls has been hit this year. As Joe notes, his whiff rate is at a career low and he’s been pulled from games an astounding 15 times, and he was the closer until mid-June. FIP aside, one has to wonder if Qualls’ knee surgery has led to some lingering inability to execute quality pitches and whether he will be able to get better results for the remainder of the year.
The Yankees and the Rays bought cheap lottery tickets. At his best, Wood is the type of pitcher that can sit in the mid-90s and strike out the side. At his worst, he misses months of the year with injuries. Qualls’ ceiling is a bit lower. He’s not the type of pitcher to generate K/9 rates of over 9, but he also been fairly consistent and healthy throughout his career, his knee injury in 2009 aside. The Yankees now have a potentially-dominant reliever able to take the reins on the 8th inning and combine with Robertson and Marte in the playoffs to give Girardi a potent arsenal. The Rays have a stabilizer, the type of pitcher that can generate ground balls and limit the free passes, a guy that they hope can fill the role that Balfour played before going on the DL after hurting himself rough-housing in the clubhouse.
All things considered, I would probably prefer Wood to Qualls. The Yankees only realistically need 30-40 solid innings out of their reliever, and while I tend to expect Qualls to rebound by the end of the year I am enticed by Wood’s potential dominance. Hopefully the Yankees can catch lightning in a bottle. Regardless, both clubs did well to take on relievers with good track records and decent upside for minimal cost. The moves were savvy, the types with potential to pay big dividends in October.