Jose Quintana's White Sox career began pretty similar to that of replacement-level swingman Scott Carroll. The Sox were in a pinch on May 7, 2012 and called upon the little-known Quintana to soak up innings in relief after Philip Humber went ahead and Philip Humbered all over the first game of a double-header. Despite not looking dominant, Quintana pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings while giving up just a single hit. It wasn't the most dominating performance you'll ever see, but it was enough to earn him a second chance when John Danks went down with the left shoulder injury that would eventually make him a shell of his former self.
Quintana took that chance and never looked back, pitching the remainder of the season to a 3.76 ERA and earning himself a claim on the fifth starter's job heading into 2013. The success felt like a tightrope act that was sure to collapse at any time, but even if there was some good luck involved, Quintana had earned something that many fringe pitchers never get -- a legitimate chance to prove that he was capable of something more.
We all know what happened next. Quintana eventually shook the "fluky" label and started to back up his results with a much more convincing level of pitching. From 2013 to 2015, he's ranked ninth in all of baseball in fWAR, the metric that seeks to remove all that is fluky from the assessment of a pitcher's performance. Quintana's been consistently good and durable since his ascension to the major league rotation, and his team-friendly extension has him penciled in as Chris Sale's number-two man for the next four years.
One of the many, many interesting things about Quintana's success is that despite being an extremely successful pitcher each of the last three years, he's been a different guy each time around. After his shaky 2012 campaign, Quintana showed up in 2013 with a stronger arm. His increased velocity and fastball backspin led to a sustainable uptick in strikeouts and a heavy concentration of infield fly balls. In 2014, the infield flies disappeared, but Quintana made up for it by cutting his home run rate by more than half. Finally, in 2015, Quintana cancelled out regression in the home run rate with increased ground balls and a drop in walks. Over three and a half years, he's transitioned from heavy reliance on a cutter to high usage of a curveball and sinker. There's been little consistent about Quintana's pitching over his White Sox career besides his excellent results. Fortunately, that's the part that truly matters.
I've been fascinated by Quintana essentially since May 2013. It was easy to write off his 2012 rookie season as one of those random baseball things that wouldn't repeat itself, but early in the following year, it was becoming more and more apparent that this was a guy who was here to stay. Pretty much since Quintana started producing quality major league results, I've invested plenty of time into trying to figure out how he was doing it. After all, this was a guy who didn't have a stellar prospect pedigree attached to him. In 2012, John Sickels gave Quintana a "C" grade and ranked him 20th in the White Sox system, an assessment that few would've disputed at the time. His entire career to-date has registered as the most unexpected and pleasant of surprises.
It's easy to see why Chris Sale is the ace he is. The funky delivery makes hitters shake in their spikes. He's got the big fastball and the wipeout slider. Jose Quintana, on the other hand, has no such calling card. As cliche as it sounds, his greatest strength might be his lack of weaknesses. The only thing superlative about Quintana is his absurd ability to collect no-decisions, which is just about as awesome as being a hitter who's ridiculously "great" at hitting sacrifice flies.
Following the recipe for plain vanilla effectiveness won't win you much national acclaim. Heck, this past year, his own team passed him over for an opening day start in favor of the less-deserving shiny-new-toy trade headliner with the red-ass attitude and the marketable nickname. If you discount the actual quality of Quintana's pitching, his history is, well, pretty boring. The two most headline-worthy events of his past, like Quintana himself, fly under the radar. First, he violated minor league baseball's drug policy in 2007, well before most baseball fans had any idea who he was. Second, he got ejected for throwing behind Ben Zobrist in retaliation during his rookie year. Quintana's body language indicated no signs of making the incident personal with Zobrist, and Ken Harrelson's epic rant about the ejection ensured that more people would remember who was broadcasting the game and who did the ejecting than who actually threw the pitch.
Without truly electric stuff, headline-grabbing quotes, or narratives attached to his performance, there's few people in the baseball world that consider Jose Quintana an "ace". When asked, you won't find many who would name Quintana one of the ten best pitchers in all of baseball. On the other hand, you'd be hard-pressed to find ten guys who have been better over the past three years.
The "Jose Quintana is underrated" mantra has been played out to the point that it's become something of a punchline. At the same time, it's hard to not continuously marvel at the gap between perception and production. Quintana's a consistent all-star who's never been an All-Star. He's never received a down-ballot Cy Young vote, and probably won't again this year despite being pretty damn close to a top-five pitcher in the American League. If the BBWAA voted for a Hall of Very Good for the Johnny Damons, Edgar Renterias, and Brad Radkes of the world, it wouldn't be shocking in the least if Quintana fell off the ballot after his first year of eligibility.
In a way, the lack of national attention makes Quintana all the more endearing to White Sox fans. The Sox tend to get less of a national spotlight than many teams due to a lack of sustained competitiveness and the more popular crosstown Cubs. We're fans of an organization that's used to getting overlooked for one reason or another, and there's a certain underdog mentality that comes with rooting for this team. Quintana, a low-ranked prospect who managed to put it all together given the opportunity, is an underdog himself. Through some combination of perseverance, responsiveness to coaching, and a dedication to keep improving that's really shown, Quintana has made himself into the best pitcher he can possibly be. That makes him an awesome story, especially because there's a lot of pitchers around baseball with more obvious talent that frustrate their teams by being incapable of translating their raw ability into outs.
This is why I always cringe a little at any suggestion of trading Jose Quintana, no matter how fair the return. Sure, the baseball reason is that Quintana's not replaceable right now in the starting rotation and dealing him for a hitter just plugs one hole by punching another. But I think what would bother me most is not being able to root for this guy every fifth game. Quintana's paid his dues by turning in exceptional performances for some truly frustrating teams. He deserves to be in a White Sox uniform when things take a turn for the better.