Two starts ago, Jose Quintana crashed into a wall in Arizona. He retired the first 10 men he faced, then spent the rest of the start unsuccessfully attempting to get himself out of trouble.
His outing against the Red Sox on Tuesday night was more of the same. Once Quintana found himself in a jam, he’s had a helluva time minimizing the damage from it.
The last two starts have only amplified what’s been his biggest problem this season: pitching with runners on. Up until this year, he’d been largely impervious to pitching from the stretch.
- 2014: .285/.334/.362
- 2015: .255/.315/.391
- 2016: .247/.309/.375
- 2017: .316/.385/.611
Which has consequently demolished his rate of runners left on base.
- 2014: 69.2%
- 2015: 76.3%
- 2016: 79.0%
- 2017: 65.4%
To give some context for those numbers, an average strand rate for an American League starter has been within a rounding error of 72 percent in each of the last four seasons.
Over the last two years, Quintana has only ranked below Jake Odorizzi with a 77.6 percent strand rate, and Quintana has the advantage of 60 more innings. This year, Quintana has the fourth worst rate in the American League.
Granted, this is just describing the symptom rather than addressing it, because most struggling pitchers don’t strand runners, and “pitch better with runners on” isn’t really advice. It’s a place to start digging, however, because his numbers with the bases empty are better than usual. The combination helps define why Quintana’s starts are so alien this year -- he looks like his old self for long stretches in game, but then gives up a crooked number in the time it takes to get another beer.
So when using Baseball Savant to look at his location, here’s where Quintana spots his curves with runners on.
All curves aren’t created equal. There are curves for putting a hitter away, and there are curves for getting ahead of the count. Even then, Quintana’s 2017 location is troubling, because he’s never spent that much time over the outer half of the plate with it.
That heat map is the result of two phenomena. One, when he’s behind in the count, his location is fat, making it easy for hitters to both hit those pitches hard and keep them fair.
But even when the count’s in his favor and hitters are willing to expand the zone, he hasn’t been able to find that down-and-in location to right-handed hitters to get those weak/unsuccessful swings.
Swinging strikes on curves are down, contact is up — the Red Sox went 3-for-3 on balls in play, including two homers by Deven Marrero. That makes the importance of his fastball command all the more vital, and that’s been lacking, too.
This still only largely describes the issue, which is that Quintana needs to pitch better from the stretch, but it is the key to his rebound. There is some solace in that location’s been the problem, because the lack of zip would be more worrisome with regards to his health. And maybe you can pin his unusual season on the unusual start (the World Baseball Classic) or his permanent residence in rumor mills, although that’s purely speculative.
It just shows how much of his success is based on being unflappable, and what happens when he isn’t. His career has been based around being a metronome with his timing and a model of consistency with his mechanics, allowing him to locate, locate, locate no matter the situation. He’ll probably be able to rediscover this quality. The question is how soon. If pressure’s been the problem, the trade deadline window only adds it.