Back when I was reading Michael’s excellent piece on Jose Quintana’s portion of 2017 with the Cubs, one thing that stuck out at me was the whopping 28.3% strikeout rate, which would have ranked 10th in baseball across a full season. In his time with the Cubs, Jose Quintana was one of the most dominant strikeout pitchers in baseball. But, anecdotally, I never really thought of him as *that* kind of guy with the White Sox. Don’t get me wrong, I knew he was very good and underrated, but I thought of him more like a very well-rounded command, control, weak contact, decent strikeout kind of guy.
The question I had: is he actually going to be a dominating strikeout-style pitcher with the Cubs now?
First thing, I should confirm for myself (and you) that my gut wasn’t wrong: Quintana’s strikeout rate with the Cubs was up ABSURDLY beyond what he’d typically done in his career. In his White Sox days, Quintana’s strikeout rate was always right around 20%. That climbed to 24.6% in the first half of 2017 with the White Sox, and then climbed even more, to the aforementioned 28.3% with the Cubs. If a switch flipped with the Cubs, the good news is that it started to flip before he’d even come to the Cubs.
So, the obvious second thing: how did he do it, and can he keep doing it?
Where you’d start to look on something like this is for obvious changes in release point and/or velocity, but there’s not a ton of difference there between 2016 and 2017. Really, the only thing that stands out is that Quintana was throwing his curveball much more slowly in 2017, which could have helped generate additional whiffs for that pitch and others that were tunneled together with it (hold onto that thought).
The next place you look is for obvious changes in the pitch mix, and that’s where we hit pay dirt. Here’s a look at Quintana’s pitch mix in 2016 and 2017, via Brooks, and the differences should jump out:
As you can see, there was a clear trend – especially as he came over to the Cubs – in sharply decreasing his heavy four-seam reliance in favor of an uptick in his sinker and his changeup. His curveball usage more or less held steady.
So if he was changing up those pitches, there must have been a reason, right? And it maybe gives us a clue about his spike in strikeout rate?
Yup. Check out his whiffs per swing for those pitches over that same time period:
There’s almost an across-the-board increase, with the biggest improvements coming from the changeup (which he started using more with the Cubs) and the four-seamer (which he started using less with the Cubs).
What’s tantalizing about the pitch mix change and these rates is that it wasn’t like Quintana just started throwing a certain pitch more often, got more whiffs on that pitch, and that was that. Because you change one pitch usage, and if that’s the only improvement you see, the league can and will adjust. But when you change multiple layers in your pitch mix, and you see improvement in all of your pitches, that suggests that it’s not only that you’re using your better pitches more often or throwing them better; it suggests that you are using all of your arsenal more effectively to keep hitters off-balance. That’s why you could – for one example – be throwing your curveball just as often (but slower) and your four-seamer less often, but see an increase in whiffs per swing on both of them!
And it’s not just about the whiffs, of course, even as we use that as an understandable proxy for the effectiveness of the pitch mix and stuff. You could also throw batters off by making them take more strikes. And, sure enough, Quintana had the 7th best rate in baseball last year at getting guys to take called strikes. (Random bonus fun fact: two of the guys ahead of him on the list – Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb.)
Of course, that may prompt you to think: wait a minute. If he’s that good at getting called strikes, does that mean he was not so good – overall – at getting swinging strikes? And you’d be right to question it! Because Quintana’s swinging strike rate in 2017 – 8.5% – was completely pedestrian, and well below league average.
Best guess? Quintana kept batters off balance so well and got himself into so many two-strike counts that he could save his wipeout pitches for those moments.
Supporting that guesstimate? A recent FanGraphs analysis comparing swinging strike rate to overall strikeout rate, and concluding that although the rates are strongly correlated, the outliers like this (i.e., guys with an extreme strikeout rate and a low swinging strike rate) tend to continue being outliers. It’s usually sustainable (though the study was not able to land on a definitive reason why).
Am I saying he’ll be at that 28+% level again this year? Well, that seems like a heavy prediction, since he spiked to that level in a mere half-season sample in a new league. But do I think he’ll repeat far above his previously-typical 20% level? I really do.
So, in the end, you have all the more reason to be stoked about Jose Quintana heading into 2018. His strikeout rate spiked to an elite level last year, and there are a number of indicators that suggest there was a real, sustainable change in there for the 29-year-old lefty.
— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) February 1, 2018