When the Cubs acquired José Quintana from the White Sox in July of 2017, the narrative Quintana carried was his consistency. Overshadowed by Chris Sale and saddled with a going-nowhere franchise, Quintana was undervalued, underappreciated, and (maybe most importantly for his trade value) underpaid. He was the guy about whom articles with titles like, “Is José Quintana So Underrated He’s Overrated?” were penned on a fairly regular basis. He was the guy with little flair to his game but a penchant for landing high enough of the end-of-year leaderboards to make casual fans go, “Hm.” In his first half-season as a Cub, he largely delivered as a key cog in in the rotation during the Cubs’ 2017 NLCS run. The future was bright.
Then reality (and Christian Yelich) hit, and Cubs fans learned: it’s really, really hard to throw 200 innings of sub-3.50 ERA ball every single year.
Position: Starting Pitcher
2018 Stats: 32 starts, 174 1/3 IP, 4.03 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 4.93 DRA, 21.4 K%, 9.2 BB%
Year in Review: Quintana’s 2018 campaign did not get off to a sparkling start. His trademark reliability vanished as he was thumped for six runs over six frames by a glorified Triple-A team in the Miami Marlins. From there, Quintana spent April and May seesawing between promising outings (as in his second start, when he tossed six shutout innings against the Brewers) and utter disasters (as in his third start, when he gave up seven earned to Atlanta and couldn’t make it out of the third inning). Whenever Quintana appeared to gain momentum after a strong stretch (a late April-early May stretch when he allowed one earned over three starts against the Brewers, Cardinals, and Marlins), he would come crashing back down to Earth (hey, it’s Atlanta again, who trounced him for six earned over 4 1/3 on May 14th).
Obviously, this is baseball, and these things happen, and it’s a long season, and small samples, and on and on and on. But with every Eloy Jiménez bomb hit into another stratosphere, Quintana’s newfound volatility became a bit more alarming.
The ups and downs evened out somewhat as the year progressed (as they’ll do, because again… baseball). As October approached, Quintana had managed to cobble together a season that—with just the right amount of squinting, and just the right amount of residual comparison to Tyler Chatwood—looked something like a reasonable facsimile of the type of year he’d become known for: more walks, fewer strikeouts an ERA on the wrong side of 4.00 (but just barely), but not too far from the rotation stabilizer the Cubs envisioned when they gave up their two best prospects for him the previous April.
It was fortuitous, then, that it was Quintana’s turn to toe the rubber in the most important game of the year, Game 163, in which he would face the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. One of the few unqualified successes of Quintana’s shaky 2018 campaign was his handling of the division rival Brewers. Entering that game, Quintana had faced Milwaukee on six different occasions that season; he’d gone at least six innings and allowed two or fewer earned runs in five of those six starts, including two in September alone. And we all know what happened from there: Quintana did his part, going five strong innings and surrendering a lone, manufactured run on six hits (half of which came at the hands of NL MVP Christian Yelich). Then the bullpen came in and allowed two eighth-inning runs. End of season.
So what went wrong with Quintana in 2018?
Like the rest of the Cubs’ rotation, Quintana just couldn’t get his footing, a fact that was as mystifying as it was maddening. Velocity on his curveball could be an issue; it was once a steady 80-mph pitch, but it’s ticked downward over the years and slowed to a career-low 76.65 mph in 2018. It could be his recent (over)reliance on his four-seam fastball, a pitch he threw nearly 50 percent of the time in 2018, leading to him being a bit more predictable. It could be that the league has adjusted to his lack of a true swing-and-miss offering; of the 113 pitchers who threw at least 2,000 pitches last year, Quintana’s 20.87% swinging-strike rate ranked 88th, tied with former Cub Jason Hammel.
While all of these are likely contributors to Quintana’s struggles last season, the one glaring issue that must improve in 2019 was his inability to pitch deep into games. Quintana’s command abandoned him, causing him to run up pitch counts like never before in 2018 and leading to shorter-than-usual outings. Take a look at the percentage of 3-0 counts for Quintana by year since becoming a full-time starter:
He simply couldn’t stay out of hitter’s counts in 2018. And even when he did see the order the third time through, he struggled mightily, with batters posting a .934 OPS against him the third time through the order. For the rest of Quintana’s career, he had allowed just a .754 OPS on the third go-round.
So yeah… not as consistent in 2018, which led to shorter outings, which led to logging his fewest innings pitched since becoming a starter in 2013. Of course, part of this is in keeping with baseball in 2018, when starters across the league are being pulled early in order to optimize matchups. And to call Quintana merely an “innings eater” seems almost pejorative. But there’s no question 2018 was a disappointment.
Looking Ahead: It’s safe to say the Cubs whiffed on Tyler Chatwood. Jon Lester is a year older. The jury is still out on Yu Darvish as a Cub. The Cubs need Quintana to rebound in 2019 and once again be the steady, middle-of-the-rotation arm he was while wearing black and white.
Even though 2018 was far from perfect, there were still positives. After tweaking his mechanics, Quintana seemed to regain his command mid-year and finished out strong, posting a 2.97 ERA over his last 7 starts and allowing more than two earned runs just once over that stretch (which, ironically, came in the best matchup of those seven games against his former team, the White Sox). And by all accounts, he’s one of the hardest workers on the team and remains an intense, focused presence on the mound.
Here’s the deal: Quintana is still underpaid, and that was a big part of his appeal all along. The Cubs recently exercised the $10.5 million club option on him for 2019, and barring some Chatwoodian implosion, the Cubs will pick up his $11.5 million club option in 2020. But if his 2018 season is the start of a downward trend rather than a one-year blip in an otherwise stellar career, history will not look kindly upon the Cubs’ giving up the farm to acquire him. As one member of one of the deepest rotations in Major League Baseball, there’s no pressure for Quintana to put up ace-like numbers. But without a true ace, this rotation will be heavily dependent on game-to-game stability, something that was once Quintana’s calling card. Here’s hoping for a more consistent 2019 for Q.
Lead photo courtesy of Patrick Gorski—USA Today Sports