For whatever reason, people enjoy ranking things. A perfectly rational species would be okay with measures of quality, but humans are really into ordering things and arguing about the ordering of things. It explains why we often find ourselves arguing about which pitchers qualify as aces. Definitions vary, but lots of us get caught up in determining the best 10, 15, or 30 pitchers, implicitly suggesting that pitchers 11, 16, and 31 are demonstrably differently than the pitchers above them on the list.
Of course, that’s after you get over the fact that we lack an agreed upon definition of “acehood.” We can all appreciate that it’s some blend of quality and durability, but the exact nature of the definition is fluid. In a basic sense, we want to know how good a pitcher is and of we can count on him to be that good for a significant number of innings. In other words, something like a pitcher’s WAR over the previous three seasons might a good place to start the ace conversation.
If you sort our leaderboard by WAR from 2013-2015, guess who’s ninth? It’s noted White Sox lefty… Jose Quintana? Using RA9-WAR he falls to 17th. Of course, his teammate deservedly receives more attention, but when you put Quintana in the context of the league, he’s been one of the best pitchers in the game for the last three seasons.
There are two admissions to make up front. First, this obviously isn’t a definitive ace listing because this is about past performance and not current ability. If anything, this is a list of pitchers who were aces for a given three-year window. Generally, about half the pitchers who are aces in a given year won’t be aces two years later. Additionally, a pitcher who missed a good portion of one of these seasons due to injury, but was otherwise awesome and durable, might not beat Quintana in the rankings even though we might wish to consider them more ace-like. Second, small differences in WAR don’t really help you separate pitchers, so ninth might mean fifth or 15th. And that’s if you like FIP. RA9-based WAR has him all the way down at 17th.
Yet despite those two acknowledgements, it would be difficult to craft a performance-based argument that suggested Quintana was anything less that one of the best two-dozen pitchers in the sport over the last three seasons.
Another concept without a good definition is “attention,” but it is probably safe to say Quintana does not receive attention commensurate with his performance to date. For example, Quintana sits among Jon Lester, Zack Greinke, Madison Bumgarner, and Cole Hamels. Those pitchers could also be described as Massive Contract, About to Sign Second Massive Contract, Postseason Hero, and Enormous Trade Chip. Recognition is hard to measure and not terribly important, but I’d wager that Quintana is lesser known than his major league success would make you think.
I am not the first person to realize that Quintana is a good pitcher. The fact that he’s a good pitcher is easy enough to demonstrate and discover if you follow the Sox, some other AL Central club, or are a die-hard baseball fan. What you might not grasp is the magnitude of Quintana’s accomplishments to date.
To begin, Quintana is just 26 years old. It’s easy to forget that because he’s been part of professional baseball since 2006. He spent time with both New York clubs prior to the 2012 season and he hadn’t yet appeared in an MLB game when the White Sox picked him up that offseason. In other words, two teams thought so little of him as an MLB prospect that he was looking for his third organization at age 23. Generally, that doesn’t bode well for one’s future.
If you’ve been around for ten years and have played in three organizations, it’s easy for people to perceive you as old. In reality, he’s only two months older than Chris Sale.
Quintana also ironically has his team-friendly contract working against his notoriety. If the team picks up the options, he’ll have given his first nine seasons to the White Sox for under $50 million. He’s under club control potentially through 2020 and you could make the case quite easily that he’s already provided more than $50 million in value to the team since he signed the deal. As a result, Quintana is not involved in trade rumors because he should be a part of the next competitive White Sox team and they have no reason to deal him. He’s very young and very cheap, which normally gets you all kinds of attention, but in his case, has kept him out of the limelight.
Even Dave Cameron, champion of the above-average and super cheap player, only ranked Quintana 41st on his trade value list this July. And postseason performance aside, there’s a decent case to be made that he’s a slightly older, slightly worse version of Bumgarner. And he’s cheaper and under team control for one extra season.
I’m not saying I would take Quintana over Bumgarner if you gave me the choice, but most of the difference between the two is perception rather than performance.
Obviously, Quintana is a polish-over-stuff guy who doesn’t throw a lot of heat. He sits around 91 and relies heavily on his curveball, getting the most out of his ability — likely in part due to the wizardry of Don Cooper. Quintana doesn’t typically rattle off 11- and 12-strikeout games while allowing one or two hits, but he’s consistent and effective.
He’s one of those guys who doesn’t have eye-popping stuff, and those pitchers are always seen as lesser entities than pitchers with better stuff who have performed in a similar way. The logic of that makes is far, as the pitchers with better stuff could improve in other areas of their game — such as command or pitch-sequencing, for example — and take the next step. Alternatively, pitchers without great stuff who have success are seen as guys who are already maximizing their talent and have nowhere to go but down. I don’t know if that’s a fair representation of the truth. It doesn’t ring true to me, but I’m not sure how I would go about testing that theory.
More concretely, however, we can look at recent comparables for Quintana as far as age and success are concerned to (1) get a sense of his true peers and (2) find out how those pitchers have aged. Here are the pitchers with an ERA- and FIP- between 80 and 90 for their age-23 to -26 seasons since 2000 (min. 500 IP):
Quintana is under contract until age 31, so let’s look at these pitchers from 27-31, acknowledging of course that not all of them have completed their age 31 season (2015 age in parentheses if needed).
|David Price (29)||655.1||78||73||16.9|
|Gio Gonzalez (29)||524.0||95||85||9.8|
|Matt Cain (30)||549.2||107||112||4.5|
|Jaime Garcia (28)||169.1||75||84||3.2|
|John Danks (30)||558.1||119||117||2.7|
|Mat Latos (27)||114.2||125||92||1.7|
There are two clear takeaways from these tables. First, Quintana has pitched extremely well and if you judge him solely based on the pitchers like whom he has pitched, he looks extremely impressive. Second, the only thing that can really prevent these guys from having extremely productive age 27-31 seasons is health. All of the pitchers who have produced less than 6 WAR have thrown fewer than 600 innings during the period. If Quintana stays healthy, he’s a good bet to add 15+ WAR to his totals for the rest of his deal. ZiPS, as referenced in the trade value piece, tends to agree.
If you want to summarize what that would mean, you’d essentially wind up getting about 30 wins from Quintana for what it would cost you to purchase about six to seven wins on the free agent market.
There are no guarantees that Quintana will stay healthy and productive into his late 20s and early 30s, but based on his performance to date, he’s in very good company. Of course, the cutoffs I’ve used are somewhat arbitrary, but they were the first and only ones I tried. I didn’t mess with a bunch until I found the list that made him look good. It might be hard sell to suggest Quintana’s age 27-31 seasons will be of the Sabathia, Verlander, or Price ilk, but Hamels, Beckett, Shields, and Buehrle seem like interesting comparisons.
Jose Quintana is a pitcher who doesn’t feel a lot like an ace when you start listing off the best pitchers in the league, but if your criteria are performance and durability, it’s hard to place him far from your top 10-15 pitchers. There are always new pitchers challenging for one of the slots, but based on recent history, what we’ve seen from Quintana suggests he has staying power and will continue to be very good for the next several years. Given the size of his contract, it’s entirely possible he will wind up being one of the best investments any team makes this decade. Pitchers get hurt, but the ones who pitch like Quintana and stay reasonable healthy continue to have success into their early 30s. Ace or not, that makes him one of the most valuable players in the league.
Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.