There were a lot of good pitchers in the American League last year. Jose Quintana was one of them. There are a lot of good pitchers in the American League this year. Jose Quintana is one of them. You may not have noticed until recently, as he’s been on a very nice run of late, which was punctuated by five perfect innings to start yesterday’s game at Fenway Park.
Quintana is an easy guy to ignore. He isn’t especially young. This is his age-25 season, and he’s in the midst of his third big-league season, and in his first season he wasn’t called up until early May. That’s pretty good, particularly for a pitcher, but it certainly isn’t remarkable. There are plenty of pitchers who have more than two full seasons under their belt by the time they get to their age-25 season.
Quintana also doesn’t hum the ball in with any sort of remarkable velocity. These days, we are growing accustomed to gaudy velocity totals, even from left-handers (thanks, Aroldis Chapman). However, Quintana’s average fastball velocity this season and last is 91.2 mph. That ranks 44th out of 80 qualified pitchers. Smack dab in the middle, in other words.
Quintana doesn’t strike out boatloads of batters. From 2013 to the present, his 20.4% K% ranks 39th out of 80 qualified pitchers. His 6.8% BB% ranks 45th. And his 13.6% K-BB%? That ranks 34th. Nothing particularly bad, but nothing flashy either. The same goes for his groundball percentage. Since the start of 2013, his 44.3% GB% ranks 41st.
Quintana doesn’t pitch on a contending team, and he also isn’t the best pitcher on his team. That title falls to Chris Sale, who is the same age, but in his fifth major league season (third full season). Sale strikes out more batters, walks fewer of them and has historically thrown the ball harder — though the two aren’t that far apart this season. Sale is also, of course, interesting to watch. To say the least. There are seemingly many more moving parts to his delivery than there should be. Quintana, on the other hand, not only has a pretty quiet and/or smooth delivery. Check out this video from his start on July 5 versus Seattle:
Not only is the delivery quiet, but so are his mannerisms. The video starts with six strikeouts, and after every single one of them, Quintana just puts his head down and circles back toward his place on the mound. Even when he notches a big strikeout in the eighth inning against James Jones, he simply retrieves the ball and turns around.
So, Quintana tends to slip through the cracks. But even though there’s no flash to him, he’s taken the step from a very good pitcher on the periphery of the best in the game to one who is firmly in the discussion. Let’s take a look:
|Jose Quintana Compared to Qualified Pitchers, 2013-2014|
|Year||WAR||MLB Rank||AL Rank||RA9-WAR||MLB Rank||AL Rank|
No matter which WAR you prefer, Quintana has been one of ten best qualified pitchers in the American League during his first two full seasons in the majors. That’s pretty good. This season, he has stepped up his game. He is striking out more batters, and allowing fewer home runs. He is generating more ground balls and permitting fewer fly balls. Using the leaderboards at the Zimmerman’s Baseball Heat Maps, we can see that batted balls against him have been travelling roughly six feet fewer than they did last season. That may not seem like a big difference, but when you cross-reference the 2013 and 2014 leaderboards, and filter out those pitchers with fewer than 200 batted balls, Quintana’s 5.6 ft drop in distance ranks as 25th-best out of 107 pitchers. Again, not super remarkable, and not close to the leader (Dallas Keuchel, 27.67 ft. fewer) or even second place (Phil Hughes, 18.45 ft. fewer), but it’s still pretty good.
But while that may lend some credence to Quintana’s lower home run per fly ball numbers, there is more to this puzzle. In a word, Quintana is crafty. That’s generally a term that you see as a descriptor for older, crappier pitchers, but it is apt here. One thing that Quintana does very well is get strike one. Over the past two seasons, only eight pitchers have been better at attaining it:
|F-Strike% Leaders among Qualified Pitchers, 2013-2014|
Now, getting strike one more than 60 percent of the time isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff. Looking at the leaderboard, 61.8% is where we cross from the upper half to the lower half. Forty-three of the 80 pitchers here clear that bar. But most pitchers who net strike one at the highest rate generally attack the strike zone the rest of the time as well. Let’s take a look at that second chart again, but with another column added.
|F-Strike% Leaders among Qualified Pitchers, 2013-2014|
Quintana operates in the strike zone less frequently than his top 10 first-strike percentage throwing brethren. In fact, of those 43 who net a 61.8% F-Strike% or better, only eight throw a lower percentage of their total pitches in the strike zone than does Quintana. Quintana is smart enough to get ahead of batters because that’s generally what you need to do succeed in the majors, but since he lacks that one killer pitch — in fact, his oft-used changeup grades out quite poorly — he generally dances around batters after he gets strike one. When we say someone has a great feel for pitching, this is what we’re talking about.
As a result of this maneuvering, batters are often left confounded. According to Baseball Savant, Quintana’s called strike three total ranks in the top 25% of all pitchers both this season and last. This season, he is also generating a higher percentage of called strike three’s as well, though there’s still time for that to regress.
Jose Quintana was a pretty good pitcher last year, but since he’s not flashy, and it was his first full season in the majors, and the White Sox were a disaster, not too many people noticed. He still isn’t flashy, and the White Sox are still not contenders, but it’s definitely time that we started noticing. A lot of things have gone right for the White Sox in their quest to quickly rebuild, and Quintana’s emergence is chief among them. Quintana and Chris Sale give the team a pretty great foundation from which to build their rotation, especially when you consider that they’ll both be wearing black pinstripes for quite some time — the contract that Quintana signed in spring training may turn out to be one of the biggest bargains in years.
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