The White Sox Have Two Aces

Chris Sale is the best pitcher in the American League, and one of the true aces in baseball. He’s made the All-Star team four straight years, and has finished in the top six in Cy Young voting in each of those seasons as well. He may be overshadowed in Chicago by what Jake Arrieta is doing right now, but Chris Sale is still recognized as one of the game’s best pitchers.

Chris Sale has a teammate, though, who you probably wouldn’t recognize unless he walked up to you and said “Hi, I’m Jose Quintana, and I’m really good at my job.” And he should consider doing just that, because Jose Quintana is indeed really freaking good at his job.

WAR, Past Calendar Year
Name IP BB% K% GB% HR/FB LOB% BABIP ERA- FIP- xFIP- WAR RA9-WAR
Clayton Kershaw 247.1 4% 34% 50% 9% 80% 0.262 50 49 54 9.8 9.8
Jake Arrieta 240.1 6% 27% 57% 8% 83% 0.230 37 61 68 7.5 11.3
Chris Sale 230.0 5% 32% 42% 12% 76% 0.293 71 65 67 7.0 6.1
David Price 217.0 5% 27% 41% 9% 76% 0.306 74 68 74 6.2 5.9
Dallas Keuchel 232.0 6% 24% 60% 14% 75% 0.301 80 73 69 5.9 5.8
Jose Quintana 216.0 5% 22% 47% 7% 79% 0.317 68 69 83 5.9 6.7
Zack Greinke 227.2 5% 23% 47% 8% 82% 0.252 57 75 84 5.7 8.7
Max Scherzer 231.0 5% 30% 36% 12% 80% 0.272 79 79 76 5.6 5.8
Jacob deGrom 179.0 5% 28% 47% 8% 78% 0.267 61 63 72 5.5 5.5
Corey Kluber 217.0 5% 28% 42% 11% 72% 0.281 86 72 75 5.5 4.6

Over the past 365 days, Quintana is tied with Dallas Keuchel for the fifth best WAR among pitchers in baseball. If you prefer the runs-allowed version of WAR, he’s fourth. No matter how you evaluate a pitcher, Jose Quintana has been amazing for the past year, and yet, he’s still somehow rarely discussed as one of the game’s elite.

But it’s time to stop talking about Quintana as a fun story who beat the odds and start talking about him as a guy who just keeps improving, and is now one of the best pitchers alive. Yes, Quintana’s backstory is fascinating — he’s perhaps the best minor league free agent any team has signed in the last few decades — and his unique path to the big leagues has probably tempered the hype that would normally follow a pitcher who performed this well upon arrival in the big leagues. And it’s also true that Quintana doesn’t have overwhelmingly dominant stuff, so he’s not as easy to appreciate as a guy like Noah Syndergaard.

But we’re now on year five on Quintana’s career, and he’s been fantastic in every single season. And he’s getting better.

QuintanaKBB

In Quintana’s first year in the big leagues, he was a contact specialist who outperformed his peripherals, but he jumped his strikeout rate up to the league average rate in year two, then maintained that level while cutting his walk rate in each of the next three seasons. This year, he’s spiking the strikeout rate up again, and his K% sits at 25% through his first six starts of 2016. And while six starts is still definitely in the land of small sample size, there are reasons to believe that Quintana’s legitimately getting better.

Brooksbaseball-Chart (11)

Over the last few years, Quintana’s fastball has sat around 91-92. In April, when most pitchers are still pitching at something less than their peak velocity, he sat at 92-93. Last night, in an eight inning dominant performance shutting down the Red Sox, he was sitting around 94. Quintana’s velocity has slowly been trending upwards ever since he got to the big leagues, but last night was the fastest his fastball has ever been clocked in a single game.

And while velocity isn’t everything, it certainly helps. The in-zone contact rate on Quintana’s fastball, by season.

In-Zone Contact Rate on Quintana’s Fastball
Season Z-Contact%
2012 88.7%
2013 87.2%
2014 87.5%
2015 88.6%
2016 84.2%

Whether it’s coincidence or confidence, Quintana is also spotting his fastball in the zone more often this year, throwing it over the plate 60% of the time. So he’s throwing more strikes and getting less contact with his fastball, which is a pretty nifty combination. As such, his fastball has gone from being an average pitch to the second most effective fastball in baseball this year, behind only Vincent Velasquez’s heater. On a per-100-pitches basis, Quintana’s fastball still ranks 4th, so he’s not just running up the fastball value by using it a lot.

At the same time Quintana is speeding his fastball, he’s also slowing down his curve, throwing it in the high-70s now, as opposed to the low-80s breaking ball he had when he broke into the big leagues. During Quintana’s first few years in the big leagues, he had roughly a 10 mph difference between his fastball and his curveball; this year, it’s over 15 mph. While there’s been plenty of research done that shows differentiation in speed between fastballs and change-ups is important, there hasn’t been as much work done on the impact of a big gap between fastball and curveball, so we can’t say with certainty that this is part of the reason Quintana is performing better, but Quintana is clearly doing something right, and this is one of the most noticeable changes.

Quintana already had one of the best curveballs in baseball — only Corey Kluber, Felix Hernandez, and Clayton Kershaw rank ahead of him in curveball value since the start of the 2014 season — but the addition of a better fastball seems to be pushing Quintana up yet another level. And he was already really good.

Quintana’s probably never going to throw in the upper-90s, and his brand of steady excellence is less exciting than an out-of-nowhere breakthrough, but at this point, Quintana’s track record demands recognition as one of the game’s best pitchers. While he may always be overshadowed by Chris Sale, Quintana would the best pitcher on most teams in baseball, and he’s becoming a star in his own right.





Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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cabreraguy
Member
cabreraguy

Why don’t you show his fWAR?

Beel418
Member
Beel418

He did?

cabreraguy
Member
cabreraguy

Yeah, I missed it. D’oh!

wildcard09
Member

fWAR is just regular WAR, since that’s considered more of the standard over the RA9 version.

Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes
Member
Malcolm-Jamal Hegyes

If this was about RA9-WAR, the article would have to be about Arrieta. His number’s in Pedro territory.