After last night’s 5.0 inning, 4 hit, 1 earned run, 4 walk, 4 strikeout performance against the Cincinnati Reds at Wrigley Field, Jose Quintana has now made six starts with the Cubs.
It’s time to take a look at how good (or bad!) he’s been.
But first, some upfront stuff. First and foremost, six starts is a tiny sample, and one in which many things both good and bad can swing the overall numbers in unreliable and non-predictive ways. For another, these aren’t the first six starts of Jose Quintana’s career. For four-and-a-half straight seasons, Quintana has been among the best pitchers in all of baseball (20.4 WAR since 2014 – 7th best in MLB) and that doesn’t change over night.
Now that we all know – definitively – that Jose Quintana doesn’t suck, let’s take a big-picture, start-by-start look at how his very short Cubs career has gone so far:
Start 1: 7.0 IP, 3H, 0ER, 0BB, 12Ks
Start 2: 6.0 IP, 5H, 3ER, 2BB, 7Ks
Start 3: 6.0 IP, 4H, 2ER, 3BB, 6Ks
Start 4: 5.0 IP, 6H, 6ER, 1BB, 6Ks
Start 5: 6.0 IP, 6H, 3ER, 1BB, 3Ks
Start 6: 5.0 IP, 4H, 1ER, 4BB, 4Ks
Okay, first and foremost, if Quintana’s done one thing in his six starts, is last deep enough into the ball game to give his team (and bullpen) a fighting chance. Through six starts, he’s never pitched fewer than 5.0 innings, and he’s gone six or more four times.
For another thing, he’s allowed more than three earned runs just once during that stretch, recording four quality starts (out of six) and coming up an inning short of a fifth QS just last night. On a start-by-start basis, then, it’s hard to be upset with what Quintana has given the Cubs. Frankly, it looks a whole lot like he had one tough start (which came against one of the best teams in baseball (Diamondbacks)), and another, Start 5 against the Giants, where two of his three earned runs came on an extremely fluky, shallow home run from Buster Posey.
Here are the overall numbers during that stretch: 3.86 ERA, 4.39 FIP, 3.84 xFIP. Every single one of those numbers, for what it’s worth, is comfortably better than the 2017 league averages of 4.49 ERA, 4.48 FIP, 4.40 xFIP. So, again, before digging deeply AT ALL, we can say that Jose Quintana has provided the Cubs with a solid number of above average innings since coming over from the South Side.
But it’s not all rose petals and honeydew, as there have been some warning signs, too. And I pointed them out before Quintana’s start against Arizona:
Through his three starts with the Cubs, he’s induced very few ground balls (37.5%), has gotten very little soft contact (11.9%) and as allowed a ton of hard contact (38.1%). Considering the home run era we now find ourselves in, that’s a very dangerous combination.
Since posting that paragraph, Quintana has given up 16 hits, including four home runs. Of course, and because nothing is ever easy, he’s actually gotten plenty of ground balls (52%), more soft contact (18.0%) and less hard contact (30.0%) during that stretch. It seems, a 23.5% HR/FB ratio really hurt him unfairly, but then again, he was probably lucky in his first three starts (12.5% HR/FB), so maybe that was just his luck evening out.
In any case, the path forward for Quintana seems fairly clear: he needs to consistently get ground balls and weak contact, so that he doesn’t need to rely on a lower HR/FB ratio to get him out of trouble. Fortunately, it seems that the tides have been turning in his favor – in this department – lately.
But what about some other departments?
In his 18 starts before coming to the Cubs, Quintana had a 24.6% strikeout rate (which is solid) and a 9.0% walk rate (which is a bit too high, but not terrible). Since then, however, he’s increased his strikeout rate to 26.4% and lowered his walk rate to 7.6%. Of course, those totals are heavily influenced by his ridiculous 12K, 0 walk performance in his Cubs’ debut against the Orioles. Take out that start (which, of course, isn’t fair, but for the purposes of seeing where he’s been lately we’ll do it) and he’s at just 21.5% and 9.1%, respectively.
So, while his ground ball rate and contact management have each been trending in the right direction lately, his K/BB ratio has gone the other way. Or, put differently, when one thing has been working for Quintana, another hasn’t.
But isn’t that pretty telling?
Despite not pitching at his best during this six-game stretch, Quintana has achieved well above average results (3.86 ERA) and slightly above average peripherals (4.39 FIP). He’s also doing that while pitching deep into games for a brand new team and coaching staff in the middle of a stressful four-team divisional race.
Does he have some things to work on? Absolutely. Perhaps even more so than just saying “well everybody does.” But has he also 1) been good and 2) shown signs of improvement? Definitely. The Cubs picked up a young, cost-controlled starting pitcher with a very long track record of top flight success. His first six stats may not have been ace-level workmanship, but they’ve been pretty darn good.
And that’s how Quintana has been so far.
[Brett: Obligatory note, since I know the folks who’ve reached the end of this post will want us to acknowledge it: yes, the unearned run given up last night was Quintana’s own fault, as he made the bizarre and ineffective choice to flip a comeback to the plate with his glove in a bases loaded situation instead of simply tossing it with his hand.]