My lasting image of Jose Quintana formed on Aug. 10, 2016, and he wasn’t even on the mound for it.
He was in the dugout after a performance that was quintessential ‘Q’ — 71⁄3 scoreless innings against the Kansas City Royals, and only a 1-0 lead to show for it. Robin Ventura pulled him after he gave up a one-out double to Paulo Orlando, and it only took one Nate Jones pitch to tie the game and leave Quintana with one of his 65 no-decisions in a White Sox uniform.
The CSN Chicago broadcast cut to Quintana’s reaction in the dugout.
That lower lip is the closest he ever came to showing up a teammate.
Games like that one made it easy to beatify Quintana. Hell, he practically applied for half the Beatitudes by the time the White Sox started selling. Of the White Sox’ two star lefties, he was the one who greater reflected the ongoing purgatory of White Sox fandom.
Chris Sale was the otherworldly talent with the architecturally unsound frame throwing unrecognizable speeds and breaks from impossible angles. He triggered no-hit alerts and demolished strikeout records. He was a regular in All-Star Games and Cy Young voting, and if he was stymied from receiving greater acclaim, he could often start by pointing the finger at himself.
Quintana could also amaze fans, but in a way that took months or years, not hours. He didn’t make hitters look silly with his low-90s fastball and high-quality curveball, just temporarily overmatched by fastballs up and breaking balls down and in. The trick was that hitters never stopped being temporarily overmatched. Quintana tended to hit his spots, and even if hitters knew what the spots might be, they couldn’t easily anticipate how Quintana went about hitting him.
Here’s Ian Kinsler calling Quintana one of the five toughest pitchers in the AL Central:
He’s not going to blow you away with any one pitch, but it’s just the whole arsenal. And he’s so incredibly consistent. Every pitch he’s throwing is a competitive pitch. Every pitch has a purpose. And you know he’s not going to walk anybody, so you’re going to have to beat him. That’s going to be the case every time you face him. You’re never going to get off easy against him.
That kind of impression isn’t forged over an at-bat or an evening. It just kinda happens, just like Quintana kinda happened to the White Sox.
The Sox signed Quintana in November of 2011 after the Yankees declined to add him to their 40-man roster. He didn’t pitch in Double-A until he started the 2012 season with the Barons. After 48 2⁄3 innings in Birmingham, the White Sox called him up as an extra pitcher for a doubleheader on May 7. He pitched 5 2⁄3 shutdown innings out of the bullpen -- no decision, of course.
After the White Sox’ longest scoreless relief outing in more than 16 years, Quintana returned to the Baron, but only for three more outings. He then rejoined the White Sox 18 days later, and he didn’t spend another day in the minors.
At first, his success seemed one-dimensional — an uncanny ability to hammer the fastball on the inside corner to right-handed hitters. He rode this to some classic Quintana performances, like when he threw back-to-back outings of eight scoreless innings and didn’t get a decision in either of them.
Opponents figured this out toward the end of the season, opening up on him earlier and barrelling it good. He posted 7.03 ERA over his last eight games, the walks spiked, and it was up to Quintana to discover a second act. With a low strikeout rate, no other noteworthy peripherals and a ho-hum arsenal on paper, the sabermetric community wrote him off.
He then spent the following years confusing the sabermetric community that wasn’t following closely enough.
A series of subtle shifts helped shake analysts and MLB hitters off his trail. He made the key sophomore-season adjustment by improving his glove-side command and opening up the whole plate. He also gained a tick on his fastball and rode it up in the zone for plenty of pop-ups, and exchanged some of his cutters for curves and changeups.
Then he reinvented himself in his third season, gaining a little velocity and abandoning his cutter.
Then he reinvented himself in his fifth season, throwing an even faster fastball two-thirds of the time, including an unprecedented usage of two-seamers.
By the end of this rise, Quintana was an All-Star himself. He built this reputation not by sheer in-game dominance, but by years of shape-shifting. His seasons always ended in the same neighborhood — 200 innings, a 20-percent strikeout rate, a 6-percent walk rate, an ERA in the 3’s -- but he always picked a different route getting there. And outside of his rookie season, these changes were never forced upon him. He was the James Patterson of pitching, publishing a new book before the league finished his last one.
And yet for all this excellent work, Quintana went 50-54 with 65 no-decisions from 2012 through 2016. Worse, the White Sox went 68-81 in games he started over his first five seasons. He was a magnet for piss-poor run support and craptacular defense, so much so that it followed him to the World Baseball Classic. Pitching for Colombia this past March, his night started with 5 2⁄3 no-hit innings against Team USA, and it ended with him watching another collapse helplessly from the dugout.
Quintana was uncharacteristically his own worst enemy over the first month or two of the 2017 season, but it only mattered for his trade value. The White Sox had already wasted the window Quintana’s team-friendly extension helped provide. The front office opted to tear it down again after they let Ventura ride the first rebuild into the ground. Quintana wasn’t even supposed to be pitching for the Sox, so the losses only aided the reconstruction.
He corrected the cut on his fastball and changeup to rediscover his old form in June, for better or for worse. He posted a 2.70 ERA over his last seven starts in a White Sox uniform ... but more than half of those starts ended in no-decisions.
One of those was his last home game, which I attended. He cruised through the first two innings on 27 pitches. In the third inning, three of the four infielders made mistakes, resulting in two errors and a Texas run. In the fourth inning, he gave up a second unearned run when Delino DeShields stole second, took third on a wild throw from Kevan Smith, and scored on a wild throw by Adam Engel.
After the bad luck had dragged Quintana down, Rick Renteria pulled him with one out in the fifth inning. Quintana needed 69 pitches to record the last seven outs, during which more than half of his defenders made costly mistakes. Adding insult to injury, Anthony Swarzak allowed a pair of inherited runners to score on a two-out single.
Ironically, it was a start like this one that made Quintana such a favorite on the South Side, because he inadvertently acted as the on-field representative for White Sox fans during the last several seasons. Year in and year out, he took the mound needing only average, ordinary competency to succeed, and the White Sox found ways to let him down time and time again. He handled it more gracefully than the bulk of us.