Angels Sign José Quintana, Who Is Still Probably Underrated

Another day gone by, another former Cubs starting pitcher joining another team. Three weeks ago, Chicago shipped away its ace by trading Yu Darvish to the Padres for Zach Davies and a quartet of prospects. On Monday, it watched two more rotation members find new employers in free agency, as Jon Lester signed with Washington and Tyler Chatwood inked a deal with Toronto. One day later, a fourth veteran starter is officially out the door, with left-hander José Quintana signing a one-year, $8-million contract to join the Angels, as reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal.

Quintana, who will turn 32 next week, pitched in just four games in 2020 while dealing with thumb and lat injuries. That’s hardly the norm, though: The thumb injury was a freak laceration suffered while he was washing dishes and resulted in the first IL stint of his nine-year career. Otherwise, he’s been the portrait of durability, averaging more than 192 innings per season from 2013 to ’19, with his lowest total being 171 in that last year. That durability would be welcome in Los Angeles, which has been notoriously unable to keep pitchers on the mound: Since 2017, just two Angels starters have eclipsed 150 innings in a season.

Being able to pile up innings is a valuable trait by itself, but there is more to Quintana than quantity. In the middle of the last decade, he was sneakily one of the best pitchers in baseball, with his 18.2 WAR from 2014 to ’17 ranking sixth in that span. It took a bit for people to take notice of him, though, because the White Sox teams he pitched for didn’t win many games, and because he was overshadowed in his own rotation by Chris Sale. Since writers and analysts love to talk about which guys they supposedly aren’t talking about enough, Quintana eventually became a staple of columns decrying his underappreciation. By the time the White Sox traded him to the Cubs in 2017, Jeff Sullivan theorized in this space that, to whatever degree Quintana actually was underrated, he would cease to be if he excelled while pitching for a pennant chaser.

Not much has gone according to plan for the Cubs since then, though. The team’s young core never made it back to the World Series, and the general manager, skipper, and a lengthy list of key players have left the organization. The prospects they traded to sustain a contender during those years, meanwhile, have blossomed in their new organizations, including Eloy Jiménez and, to a lesser extent, Dylan Cease, two of the players the Cubs exchanged for Quintana. Jiménez is already terrorizing pitchers in the majors, and Cease still has plenty of potential in his arm. It might have been easier for Cubs fans if Quintana were simultaneously earning Cy Young votes and making All-Star teams, but he did neither of those things, and by falling short of those lofty expectations, his acquisition gets labeled as a historically bad move for the franchise.

The reality, though, is that Quintana was still pretty good during his time on the North Side. He was the Cubs’ best pitcher over the remainder of the 2017 season, and though the following year was his worst as a major leaguer, he still managed a 4.03 ERA, 4.43 FIP and 1.7 WAR. His 2019 season looked more like his White Sox days, as he posted 3.5 WAR, a 3.80 FIP and a 4.68 ERA, the latter of which was hurt by his left-on-base rate being nearly nine points lower than his career average. Last year was a lost one for Quintana, but as disappointed as some Cubs fans may be in his tenure with the club, his numbers haven’t deteriorated over the years the way some would think.

Year FB Velocity Exit Velocity Barrel% K% BB% Whiff% xwOBA
2015 92.0 mph 88.0 mph 4.3% 20.5% 5.1% 21.8% .314
2016 92.6 mph 88.2 mph 4.5% 21.6% 6.0% 18.6% .300
2017 92.5 mph 87.6 mph 5.9% 26.2% 7.7% 21.2% .315
2018 92.0 mph 89.4 mph 6.1% 21.4% 9.2% 20.8% .327
2019 91.6 mph 90.0 mph 5.7% 20.4% 6.2% 20.9% .333
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Quintana was regarded as a model of consistency with the White Sox, and those days aren’t over. He still succeeds with the same general mix of pitches he always has, and his velocity is steady.

Yet Quintana’s contract with the Angels suggests skepticism within the industry. He got the same deal as Robbie Ray, who is coming off a 6.50 FIP in 51.2 innings last year, and fell a few million short of Corey Kluber, Drew Smyly and Mike Minor. Those pitchers arguably possess greater upside, but it’s still surprising to see his durability and consistency not get him a larger reward. In his Top 50 Free Agents list, Craig Edwards suggested one year and $11 million for him, while the crowdsource median handed him two years and $20 million. The vast majority of free agents have been able to beat their projections this winter, some by a lot, but Quintana fell well short.

The beneficiary of that is Los Angeles, which is perpetually in search of quality pitching help. Angels starters had the second-worst ERA in baseball in 2020 after missing out on the Gerrit Cole sweepstakes last winter and getting only five outs out of Shohei Ohtani before he was shut down for the year. Dylan Bundy proved to be a good pick-up from Baltimore, and Griffin Canning and Andrew Heaney put together solid seasons, but others like Julio Teheran and Patrick Sandoval struggled badly at the back of the rotation.

Quintana will slot in somewhere in the middle of what manager Joe Maddon says will be a six-man rotation in 2021, and his performance could hinge on which direction the Angels’ defense tilts behind him. In 2019, Statcast’s Outs Above Average metric ranked Los Angeles fifth in baseball. Last year, it was dead last. The infield combination of David Fletcher at second, Anthony Rendon at third and newly-acquired José Iglesias at shortstop has the potential to be very good, but the outfield is less certain. Justin Upton is on old legs, Mike Trout’s defense can fluctuate wildly from year to year, and neither Jo Adell nor Jared Walsh look like good fielders in right. Quintana can be quite successful in Los Angeles, but his style of pitching will put some extra responsibility for his numbers in the hands of an uneven group of fielders.

Even if the Angels can get vintage Quintana, they could still have trouble reaching the playoffs if he’s the last starter they add this winter. Trevor Bauer is the most obvious fit here, since he’s far and away the best pitcher available in free agency. But if he’s outside their intended price range, the team could still try to use the trade market to add to the top of its rotation, the way it did with Bundy a year ago. I think Quintana is still better than he’s getting credit for, and better than this contract would indicate. But like in Chicago, the problems in Los Angeles are too big for him to solve by himself.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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3 years ago

It’s incredibly frustrating to see the Angels going back to the bargain bin after finally splurging on Ohtani and Rendon. Seems like they are soooooo close to finally building a contender with Trout but it looks like they just won’t do it 🙁

Pwn Shop
3 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

By splurging on Ohtani, you mean winning him in a sweepstakes.

3 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

I think there is an argument to be made that once the Gaus and Stro Men signed their QOs that Quintana was in the Top 5 starters available in FA. I’d put him in the same camp as Tanaka, just above Kluber and Paxton (although the two of them, especially Kluber, offer a lot more upside).

And it’s not like a contract like this one precludes them signing Bauer.

3 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

They need multiple starting pitchers plus bullpen additions. It wouldn’t help much to splurge almost all their remaining cash on just adding Bauer, just as it didn’t help them much to spend most of their available money on Rendon after missing out on Cole instead of addressing their pitching staff properly.

paul ehrlich
3 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

I agree but sometimes there is also the embarrassment factor. An old friend of mine admitted his recently broken wrist was a result of tripping and falling after sitting on the commode so long that his leg/foot fell asleep, causing his fall once he stood up.