José Quintana’s Graceful Reinvention

© Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The top nine pitchers by WAR since 2012 have a combined 54 All-Star Game appearances, 13 Cy Young Awards, and two MVP Awards in their careers. Most of them, including Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, and Stephen Strasburg, have signed nine-figure contracts that earn each of them over $30 million annually. Then, at number 10, there’s the ever underrated one-time All-Star José Quintana, just ahead of Yu Darvish and David Price:

Top Pitchers by WAR Since 2012
Name WAR
1 Max Scherzer 60.2
2 Clayton Kershaw 55.9
3 Justin Verlander 46.3
4 Chris Sale 43.8
5 Jacob deGrom 41.1
6 Corey Kluber 39.1
7 Gerrit Cole 38.5
8 Zack Greinke 38.4
9 Stephen Strasburg 33.2
10 José Quintana 32.7

Quintana, 33, has accumulated 32.7 WAR over an 11-season career that looks wildly different from those of his peers on this list. He started with the White Sox from 2012-17, signing a $21 million extension in 2014 and posting a 3.51 ERA in over 1,000 innings. In 2017, the Cubs took an interest, parting with their top two prospects, Eloy Jiménez and Dylan Cease, and two others to get Quintana’s talents to the North Side.

From there, he wavered. His fastball velocity declined year to year from 2016 to ’20, and while he was still capable of making 30 starts each season, he wasn’t able to get outs as effectively. In his contract year in 2020, COVID-19 and two stints on the IL limited Quintana to just one start and three relief outings. His struggles would continue in 2021, when attempts to catch on with the Angels and Giants resulted in a pair of DFAs.

Meanwhile, at this year’s trade deadline, the Cardinals found themselves a game out of a playoff spot and in need of pitching depth. Free agent newcomer Steven Matz, who had struggled mightily, was headed to the IL indefinitely with a torn MCL, and Jack Flaherty was a question mark as well, having made just three short starts to that point between shoulder injuries. By the end of July, St. Louis was maneuvering around the All-Star Break and a friendly schedule to get by with a four-man rotation of Miles Mikolas, Adam Wainwright, Dakota Hudson, and Andre Pallante until they could swing a deal or two for some depth.

Jordan Montgomery was the bigger splash, partially because he came over with an extra year of control from a Yankees team that at the time was on pace to win nearly 110 games, and partially because the deal came in the final minutes of a wild deadline during which St. Louis was reportedly a finalist for Juan Soto. Montgomery was a serious addition, having emerged last season as one of New York’s most consistent starting options, posting 4.5 WAR over 51 starts with the Yankees from 2021-22.

To further bolster the staff, the Cardinals also swung for Quintana, who had signed with the Pirates last November for $2 million and been effective through 20 starts. Given the lefty’s recent track record, the Cardinals were able to acquire him and veteran bullpen arm Chris Stratton for two interesting but not particularly highly rated prospects in Malcom Nunez and Johan Oviedo. It was a typical trade deadline swap between a contender and a non-contender.

Montgomery has been essentially what St. Louis hoped he would be. He allowed no more than one earned run in six of his first seven starts, including a strong debut against his former team at Busch Stadium and a complete-game one-hitter at Wrigley Field in late August. He’s mixed in a few clunkers against potential future playoff opponents in the Braves, Brewers, and Dodgers, but his 3.11 ERA, 3.08 FIP, and 3.09 xFIP in 11 starts tell a consistent story.

In Quintana, though, the Cardinals got more than they bargained for. In 11 starts of his own since joining St. Louis, Quintana ranks sixth among qualifying major leaguers with a 2.11 ERA and 2.53 FIP. xFIP has been less friendly (3.50), but Quintana has gotten the job done, leading the Cardinals to a 9-2 record in his starts as they’ve cruised to a comfortable division title:

Cardinals 2022 Deadline Acquisitions Since Joining St. Louis
José Quintana 1.8 11 59.2 2.11 2.53 3.50
Jordan Montgomery 1.4 11 63.2 3.11 3.08 3.09

In his last five starts, Quintana has not only been the most valuable pitcher on his team, but across the majors. Since September 6, no pitcher has amassed more than his 1.3 WAR, due in part to a 0.89 ERA (second in the majors), 1.67 FIP (second), and 2.93 xFIP (17th, min. 20.0 IP). Headed into the postseason for just the second time in his career, Quintana is pitching some of the best baseball of his life.

In an era of high velocities and strikeout rates, Quintana has abandoned the strikeout, making the graceful transition – one that many veterans are forced to make with varying levels of success – to being a pitcher whose primary weapon is the ability to induce weak contact.

As his four-seam fastball and sinker have lost some of their velocity, he has shifted his arsenal to rely on that combination less this year than ever before. His sinker, in particular, has been relegated to 15.9% use, its lowest point since 2014 and down over eight percentage points from ’19. In its place, his changeup usage has nearly doubled in the last three years, up to a career high 19.6%. The selective usage has made his four-seamer more effective – at -17 runs, it’s at its highest run value ever.

He has deployed this arsenal by throwing mostly outside the strike zone, elevating his fastball more and making hitters reach for curveballs and changeups. His 35.4% zone rate is the lowest in a full season of his career, around 10 percentage points lower than his typical early-career season, and the second-lowest among qualifying pitchers this year. And it’s working – he’s enticing swings on a career-high 36.2% of his pitches outside of the zone, the 10th-highest rate among qualifiers. Meanwhile, despite throwing more pitches outside the zone than ever, his walk rate is down significantly from last year and right around his career average. Hitters are swinging and making contact – it’s just not very good contact:

Work Outside the Zone by the Majors’ 4.0-WAR Pitchers
Name Team WAR Zone% O-Swing% O-Contact%
1 Carlos Rodón SFG 6.2 43.1% 34.4% 57.6%
2 Aaron Nola PHI 5.9 42.9% 37.1% 60.8%
3 Justin Verlander HOU 5.8 42.8% 36.9% 68.9%
4 Sandy Alcantara MIA 5.7 43.5% 37.9% 64.6%
5 Kevin Gausman TOR 5.5 42.0% 42.7% 58.9%
6 Shohei Ohtani LAA 5.4 44.3% 32.6% 48.2%
7 Max Fried ATL 5.0 38.3% 36.8% 63.6%
8 Shane Bieber CLE 4.7 42.9% 35.0% 47.8%
9 Zac Gallen ARI 4.4 39.7% 34.8% 67.8%
10 Dylan Cease CHW 4.4 36.2% 35.5% 55.9%
11 Corbin Burnes MIL 4.4 35.1% 35.6% 51.5%
12 Yu Darvish SDP 4.2 48.1% 33.6% 64.5%
13 Logan Webb SFG 4.2 41.6% 34.5% 64.5%
14 Alek Manoah TOR 4.1 42.7% 34.7% 64.1%
15 Framber Valdez HOU 4.1 45.9% 30.7% 53.7%
16 José Quintana PIT/STL 4.0 35.4% 36.2% 66.3%

The result has been the third-largest drop in average exit velocity among qualifying major leaguers since 2021. Quintana’s 90.6 mph average exit velocity last year was in the 12th percentile; this year’s 86.5 mark has him in the 89th percentile. Similarly, his hard-hit percentage improved from the sixth percentile (45.5%) to the 68th (36.1%), and his barrel percentage from the fourth percentile (11.9%) to 77th (5.6%). By drawing hitters outside the strike zone, he has significantly diminished the quality of their contact without conceding bases on balls with any sort of damaging frequency:

José Quintana’s Major League Percentiles
Stat 2021 2022
Avg. Exit Velocity 12 89
Hard Hit % 6 68
Barrel % 4 77

As a result of the weak contact, opposing hitters have posted a .248/.303/.347 slash line against Quintana, down from a .286/.370/.483 line in 2021. Since joining St. Louis, they’re batting .243/.294/.303. After allowing a home run to his third batter faced in Cardinals red, he has managed to keep the ball in the ballpark against his last 234 batters faced. That includes each of his last 10 starts, marking the second-longest active streak in the majors and the longest by a Cardinal since a 10-game stretch by Chris Carpenter in 2009. Quintana is a 4.0-WAR pitcher for the first time since 2017, but that pitcher is hardly recognizable.

This year’s postseason will feature some of the very hardest-throwing players in baseball, from Jacob deGrom to Edwin Díaz to Quintana’s teammates Ryan Helsley and Jordan Hicks. But a reinvented Quintana looks to be an important postseason weapon for the Cardinals, who are lining up to face some of the National League’s hardest-hitting offenses in Philadelphia and Atlanta. He’s looking for his first big October moment, and he may do it all without topping 94 mph.

All stats through October 1.

Chris is a data journalist and FanGraphs contributor. Prior to his career in journalism, he worked in baseball media relations for the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox.

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1 month ago

I liked this article, Chris.