Obscured, perhaps, by other struggles in the rotation, Jose Quintana has developed a pretty unexpected problem with his command this season.
For the year, the Cubs starter has walked 54 batters (10.5%), which is sixth worst among all qualified pitchers in baseball. On its own, that would be alarming. But this is an almost entirely new problem for him. Before 2018, for example, Quintana’s previous single-season high was just 7.7% (2017), which is not only nearly 3 percentage points lower than the mark he’s currently running, but it’s also better than average! And as a matter of fact, Quintana’s career average walk rate before this season was all the way down to 6.5%! So it’s fair to ask … what the heck is going on?
Well, with just a brief look into his plate discipline data, I can see that batters are swinging at fewer pitches both out of *and* in the zone than usual. Meanwhile, his swinging strike rate is down from his career averages. So, even before we consider called balls and strikes, fewer swings overall and fewer swings and misses have contributed to the problem.
But let’s look at his pitches, individually, to see if anything else stands out. Here’s how often he’s missing the strike zone:
Career Ball Rate/Pitch:
2018 Ball Rate/Pitch:
Fourseam: 35.2 (+3.7)
Sinker: 35.5% (+0.8)
Change: 50.3% (+1.3)
Curveball: 43.9% (+2.9)
As you can see, his ball rate per pitch is up across the board this season, but it’s not quite uniform. Quintana’s four-seamer and curveball (which he uses a combined 59% of the time) are each up by significant margins, likely explaining a majority of the problem. But when you throw in the fact that he throws his four-seamer as the first pitch in at-bats roughly 50% of the time, it’s even easier to see how a 3.7% increase in ball rate has turned into a disproportionate amount of walks.
WITH ALL OF THAT SAID, things have been a bit better here lately. Last night, for example, Jose Quintana walked just two batters over 6.1 IP and one of the free passes sure looked like an umpire mistake (shoulda been strike three). And before that, he walked exactly no batters in San Diego. So in an ideal world, this is a problem we are catching at the tail end of the terror. In the real world, however, he may have had a really nice two-game blip on this front against two crummy offenses. I suppose we’ll have to wait to find out.
As for last night’s start as a whole, yeah, it was a bummer, but it didn’t really have to be. Even if you don’t credit him with the strikeout he should have had (and take away a walk and two runs), he could’ve exited the game with this final line: 6.0 IP, 3H, 2ER, 2BB, 3K and we would’ve all been happy.
But Joe Maddon sent Quintana out there for the seventh inning and he immediately allowed back-to-back singles and a homer. He struck one more batter out before he left, but with the snap of a finger, his perfectly fine line looked a whole lot worse: 6.1 IP, 6H, 5ER, 2BB, 4K.
Now, to be fair, this wasn’t really Joe Maddon’s fault. Jose Quintana was at just 89 pitches through his first six innings and, like we pointed out, was actually pitching well for the most part. And, sure, batters have hit him better the third time through the order (.774 OPS) than the first (.693) or second (.669) throughout his career, but those actually aren’t crazy high numbers and this was the bottom of the 2018 ROYALS order, for Pete’s sake. Leaving him in was an appropriate call,* it just didn’t work out.
*And that’s not even considering the desire to get some more length out of starters lately, to help preserve the bullpen (a.k.a. the lone bright spot of the pitching staff) down the stretch.
So where does this leave us? Well, really, I don’t know. It’s very hard to say what went wrong for Quintana last night, because many of the things he usually struggles with weren’t the problem. I suppose his elevated fly ball rate and lack of soft contact were contributing factors, but it’s entirely possible that he’s balancing whatever factors allow him to succeed in that arena with his overall command, which, again, was far better last night for the second consecutive game.
I wish I had a more concrete explanation for what to look for going forward, but this time, I’m a little puzzled.
Either way, it’s not what you want from an important starting pitcher in mid-August.