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Taking notice of Jose Quintana’s latest shift

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He’s still fastball-curve, but with a new twist on the heat

Tampa Bay Rays v Chicago White Sox Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images

Chris Sale received plenty of attention for changing his approach, and rightly so. It’s unusual that a pitcher who led the American League in strikeouts and FIP while throwing over 200 innings would feel a need to make adjustments the league didn’t demand. Minnesota Twins aside, the only thing 2015 taught him was to avoid “jumping off his truck.”

Yet there he was, tipping a more strike-zone oriented strategy that would hopefully result in quicker outs at a cost of strikeouts. It more or less worked. He matched his previous season by averaging 107 pitches per start, but he threw one more start and 18 more innings. The ERA was the second-highest in his five years starting, but Baseball Prospectus says you can pin some of that on his catchers and defense (Deserved Run Average of 2.69). Jeff Sullivan said Sale also gave up the season’s worst home run, based on the success rate on such fly balls with the same angle and exit velocity. You can guess which one is the little guy he’s talking about.

Besides the factors Sale couldn’t control (catcher, team success) and the ones attributable to him (outbursts of petulance, strange-at-times pitch mix), Sullivan’s kicker identifies another one of those twists that kept Sale’s season a muted kind of triumph:

As for Sale’s side of things, whatever, a solo homer is only momentarily frustrating, and he and the White Sox won the game, which is what was most important. But this year, Sale finished first in the American League among pitchers in WAR, at 5.2. It worked out to be a three-way tie, between Sale, Justin Verlander, and Rick Porcello. Any little thing could’ve caused that tie to be broken. Any little thing.

In my “Notes from The Bill James Handbook” post, I relayed the information that Sale’s changeup was still effective (.555 OPS allowed) despite the Condor cutting its usage in half. In a fortuitously timed interview published by FanGraphs’ David Laurila, Don Cooper provided his side of the thinking:

“If it’s a really good pitch for you, you’re going to use it a lot. Chris Sale, the last three years, has been lots of changeups. Fastball and lots of changeups. But what happened then is, people started being able to deal with just two speeds. That’s when we started using more breaking balls. Now there are three speeds to deal with. If you’re locating your pitches, changing speeds, getting ahead, you have a chance to be successful.”

I remain skeptical of this explanation, because the pitch mix flipped from being a binary choice on speed to a binary choice on spin, and both seem suboptimal. The changeup may be Sale’s third pitch, but it’s not behind his slider to such an extent that he should be in Carlos Rodon’s neighborhood of usage (14.1 percent to Rodon’s 10.7 percent). Sale probably has the choice of bringing his changeup back, which is an option most pitchers can’t keep in their back pockets.

Whatever the outcome, the point is that we know a lot about Sale’s stuff and how he uses it. Because Jose Quintana’s arsenal isn’t nearly as GIFable — and because his ceiling isn’t record-setting like Sale’s -- his evolutions haven’t drawn the same kind of attention. If Cooper’s quotes are any indication, even Quintana’s pitching coach might not be noticing it:

“[Quintana] wasn’t always that way, but the curveball has become a big pitch for him. Listen, whatever a starter’s second pitch is, it’s going to be thrown the second-most amount of times. He’s fastball, curveball, cutter, change. His curveball is his second-best pitch and his fastball is first. So, you’re going to see a fairly decent number of them. [...]

“From the first year on, [Quintana] has added some things in there. At first, he was fastball-cutter. Then we played with a curveball, played with a changeup. Now he’s got four pitches. He can elevate his fastball. He can do a lot of different things. But the foundation of it all is a very good delivery that can promote more and more strikes.”

If Quintana had four pitches, his success wouldn’t be so difficult for outlets like FanGraphs to discern. Looking at his pitch data, he’s abandoned his cutter, and his changeup is way down, too. His offspeed usage tailed off noticeably in the second half, as he threw changeups 9.5 percent of the time through June, and just 7 percent of the time over the last three months. He was fastball-curve for nearly 93 percent of his pitches by the end.

And it worked, because somehow his fastball has gotten even better.

Last year’s adjustment was easy to see. He led all starters in curveball usage, sealing that crown by throwing curves 50 percent of the time to Kansas City hitters in his final start.

This year’s shift is more subtle. The 2016 season marked his third consecutive year being a fastball-curve guy, but the fastball is back:

Year Fastball Curve
2014 62.5
24.5
2015 59.3 30.9
2016 66.8
24.8

But it’s not just that he’s gone back to his 2014 pitch mix. There are two other twists involved. First, sort the fastballs:

Year Four-seam Two-seam Curve
2014 53.2 6.5 24.5
2015 37.9 16.9 30.9
2016 41.1 25.2 24.8

Here’s a notable reliance on two-seamers out of nowhere. This had the opposite effect in terms of batted balls, as he set a career low in ground-ball rate (40.4 percent) while rediscovering his ability to get pop-ups at an inflated frequency (13.4 percent). The unusual contact mix worked for him. According to The Bill James Handbook 2017, Quintana yielded the fourth-lowest OPS against his fastball in the American League (.634), even ahead of Sale (.674), which was the fact that made me start looking at Quintana’s fastball in the first place.

Using Brooks to find the batting average and isolated power against each of their fastballs in 2016, the results may surprise you:

  • Quintana 4-seam: .243 BA, .131 ISO
  • Sale 4-seam: .221 BA, .207 ISO
  • Quintana 2-seam: .224 BA, .106 ISO
  • Sale 2-seam: .286 BA, .126 ISO

Average them out, and the league batted .233 against Quintana’s fastballs in 2016, which is a steep drop from .298 in 2015, whereas Sale’s .238 was in line with his previous two years.

That points to a fluke for Quintana, but here’s the other twist in his approach: Quintana found a way to throw just a little bit harder still, setting career highs in velocity for both fastballs:

It’ll be a sad day if and when the White Sox break up the Sale-Quintana tandem. As much as the former overshadows the latter, Sale also makes Quintana’s quirks more evident. Sale made news/invited concern by announcing his revised approach. It’s admirable to want to take on more innings, but diminished velocity is one of the signs of injury, or at least wear and tear, and “too many strikeouts” is a first-world problem for pitchers. So far, the angst is unwarranted.

Meanwhile, Quintana has become a two-pitch pitcher, first by throwing more curves than anybody, then by leaning on his fastball about as much as anybody. Yet he still set personal bests in most categories — including strikeouts — because he keeps finding ways to incrementally add to his velocity as he approaches the 1,000-inning mark. Somehow, he’s the normal one.