As Scott Merkin's most recent mailbag shows, a lot of people are worrying about Jose Quintana's innings limit, pitch count, and any other numbers representative of his unprecedented workload.
That's certainly important. Quintana passed the 90-inning mark in the majors with his fine effort in defeat on Wednesday night, and he's coming up fast on 140 total. That's notable because he's never thrown more than 102 in a professional season, and there's still nearly two full months left. He doesn't have Chris Sale's unusual build or velocity, but he comes close to having Sale's ERA (2.78), so it's important to keep him as fresh as the AL Central race allows.
But at the moment, I'm more interested in his walk rate, because his impeccable control could make history.
Every lapse in control counts right now. For instance, Quintana walked two batters over his seven innings against Kansas City a couple days ago. That would register as perfectly fine for nearly every pitcher in baseball, and more so for a true rookie. For Quintana, that was a problem, because it raised his walk rate to 1.69 every nine innings.
And now he's just four balls away from losing the lowest walk rate for any first-year White Sox pitcher.
Prior to this season, there were only two pitchers over the 112-year history of the franchise to average fewer than two walks per nine innings (minimum of 80 innings) during their initial exposure to the big leagues. Quintana leads by mere thousandths:
You might remember the name Sloppy Thurston, if only because you'd remember it if you'd only heard it once. But besides his command, he also holds the distinction of being the last White Sox pitcher to strike out the side on nine pitches. He accomplished the "immaculate inning" in the 12th inning of a game against the Philadelphia Athletics on Aug. 22, 1923, fittingly striking out Connie Mack's 1-2-3 hitters, Beauty McGowan, Chick Galloway and Sammy Hale.
(Matt Thornton made the Sox's last real run at a nine-pitch-three-K inning on Opening Day of 2010 -- Travis Hafner fouled off a high fastball on an 0-2 count, and he had to settle for a diving catch by Alex Rios to close it out.)
Ted Lyons gave Hollis Thurston the "Sloppy" tag, and while the nickname was ironic, it didn't pertain to his strike-throwing abilities. As Richard Lindberg in Total White Sox tells it, apparently Thurston was a handsome fellow, with a wardrobe as fine as his command. (Between calling a dandy dresser "Sloppy" and his famous line about Moe Berg, Lyons probably would be a helluva roaster). Thurston didn't have a fastball, but he did have a screwball and a double-pump windup, so he could fool hitters in a few ways.
Thurston and Quintana share some other parallels with the ways their Sox careers started. While the Sox signed Quintana as a minor-league free agent from the New York Yankees, the Sox picked up Thurston on waivers from the St. Louis Browns on May 12, 1923. Quintana threw the last 5⅔ innings as a reliever in his White Sox debut, holding the Indians scoreless; Thurston finished the first game he appeared in with 3⅔ scoreless innings himself.
Roy Patterson in 1905
(Chicago Daily News / Library of Congress)
Earlier this season, Quintana faced 100 batters without a walk. There's a good chance Thurston matched him, or even exceeded the feat. His game log shows nine straight walkless appearances, covering 98 batters. Unfortunately, there isn't play-by-play data for 1923, so we don't know when he walked the one batter in his six-inning outing before that streak. Throw in their low strikeout rates, and Quintana and Thurston are almost brothers in (opposite throwing) arms, born 90 years apart.
Quintana has less in common with Roy Patterson, who is noteworthy in his own right. According to Total White Sox, Patterson won the the first exhibition game for the White Sox in 1900, and recorded the first victory in American League history on April 24, 1901.
Patterson, Thurston, Quintana. That's it for guys who walked fewer than two batters an inning in their debut season.
If you want to expand the scope a little further to include all rookies, then Quintana has a little more cutting to do. In 1987, Bill Long started his season with a two-hit shutout, and proceded to walk just 28 batters over 169 innings, or 1.49 walks per nine innings. But Long was 27 then, and it was his second stint in the big leagues (he pitched 14 ineffective innings over four outings in 1985).
For Quintana to throw strikes as convincingly as he does, at age 23, straight out of Double-A and on a contending ballclub, I'd consider his performance more impressive regardless. Whether he's throwing 1-2-3 innings or getting roped around the park, he doesn't stop throwing strikes. That takes a ton of confidence and composure.
Then again, he also doesn't have much of a choice. He's striking out fewer than five batters per nine innings, and his home run rate is normalizing after an early and unexpected drought (six over his last six starts). Given the high amount of contact he allows, avoiding walks is the one way he can limit the damage from the eventual hits and homers. Give him credit for milking that for all it's worth.
Quintana already owns one piece of odd history, as he's the first pitcher since 1900 to throw three scoreless eight-inning no-decions in a season. His pursuit of a second is a fun thing to pay attention to, in case you weren't enthralled enough by a no-name rookie taking the place of the injured Opening Day starter and delivering 90 outstanding innings to keep the Sox in first place.
Now that you know this, unremarkable individual plate appearances can now bring you to the edge of your seat. He hasn't intentionally walked a batter, but he did throw four straight out of the strike zone to Billy Butler on Wednesday with a base open for his second walk of the game. Booooo! But what about the next inning, when Jeff Francoeur of all people was frozen by a 3-2 changeup that was probably a strike, and Quintana had nothing to show for it? What the hell was that about? Remove that "walk" and he's down to 1.589!
It also works with should-be outs. In the eighth inning, there was A.J. Pierzynski, letting a wipeout slider skip through his legs for a dropped third strike on Quintana's final batter of the game. If Pierzynski merely let gravity pull his butt down to the dirt, Quintana would be at 91 innings this season and 1.681 walks.
This is what you're going to be thinking every time Quintana starts a hitter with a 2-0 count. Have fun knowing this!