Before Dishwashers

How Jose Quintana can finally earn the love he deserves, a short story

The water runs hot from the faucet.

It splashes and collects in the wine glass, turning pink as a rosé. The wine sat too long – just one swallow’s worth that wasn’t finished during dinner – but the perfect red ring it left inside the glass won’t wash away. Not from a rinse. This glass needs pressure to scrub clean.

There’s a dishwasher, but is it worth it for only a few dishes? Q always considered himself an old-school, wash-by-hand kinda guy.

José Quintana didn’t think the season would go this way. After waiting out the delay from COVID-19 and skirting the virus, Quintana surely didn’t expect to have pitched a total of 6 innings by the middle of September. He was healthy. He was in an option year. If there was baseball in 2020, Quintana planned to be out there pitching for the Chicago Cubs. He may be a free agent at season’s end, but his work on the North Side of Chicago isn’t finished.

He’s still proving he’s worth it: worth the $11.5MM option, worth the rotation spot, worth the price the Cubs paid to get him in July of 2017.

The glass shatters in his hand. The sound is worse than the laceration itself: the crack! of the wine glass as it folded to the pressure of his fingers. The sound comes just milliseconds before the cut, an imperceptibly short amount of time, but in his memory that moment drags on for minutes, maybe hours. In that moment the dread of another insufficient season creeps in from all sides and wraps its snaky tendrils around his heart to stop it.

Five stitches. That’s all it took. Five stitches to relegate Q to the very end of the bench, where it’s easy to sink into the darkness and out of sight. In the dark, all he thinks about is that moment, the milliseconds between hearing crunching glass and seeing blood run down his thumb along the hairline of his wrist to drip into the sink.

If he’s willing to look for it, there might be something else there, in the very back of that moment, in a place so far down Q couldn’t possibly see it: relief from the perennially unhappy Cubs’ nation; relief from the remorse he must recognize on the faces of those fans when they watch him pitch; relief from the niggling itch in that back of his own mind that says he wasn’t and still isn’t good enough to equal Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease in value – which he’s not. But if he can bring himself to look for it…

There is relief.

The Next Chapter

 

A small sampling of relief appearances throughout Quintana’s career has produced 17 innings, a 2.12 ERA, 10.59 K/9, 3.71 BB/9, opponents slashing .197/.279/.344. That sure is a pitcher the Cubs could use in their 2020 bullpen. Maybe as with many things, the key to Quintana’s dominance –  to his finally becoming a fan favorite on the Northside – is portion control.

The fact is, Quintana is not the workhorse he was when he came North: four consecutive seasons of 200 innings on the Southside, but not once in Wrigley. He’s just not pitching deep into games. Quintana has logged one out in the eighth inning or later since 2017.  He averaged 6 1/3 innings per start with the Pale Hose. Maybe that guy still lives in 2016, but here, in 2020, he barely averages more than 5 1/3 per start. Only 31-years-old, but he’s lost half a tick on his 92 mph fastball, too – check that, 91.5 mph fastball. There’s no turning back the clock.

His thumb has healed. His lat will heal. But the Quintana of today is not the guy he used to be. Here are three reasons why:

  1. The biggest difference between Quintana on the Cubs and Quintana on the White Sox: home runs. From 2012 through 2016, he served up 0.8 HR/9 with an 8.7 HR/FB%. In the last two years, those numbers have risen to 1.2 HR/9 and 13.4 HR/FB%. That’s the difference between 16 home runs and 23.4 home runs over 180 innings. 7.4 more home runs per season as a Cub.
  2. A vampiric aversion to daylight: Over the last two years, Quintana’s averaged 1.35 HR/9 when pitching in daylight. At night? That number falls to 0.96 HR/9. 5.42 ERA in day games last year, 5.13 ERA the year before. 3.84 and 2.71 at night.
  3. The 9-batter rule: In 2019, the first time a batter faced Quintana in a game he hit .236/.290/.346. The second time he faced him, he hit .327/.365/.510. Time to draw some lines in the sand: nine batters, three innings, pitch the dude at night.

Is it possible the answer to Quintana’s regression lies in the bullpen? Where snarling, mustachioed hooligans mad-mug their way to stardom 12, 14, 20 pitches at a time? That’s not Quintana. He’s not the hero type. Not the type to flex. Part of what drives Northsiders to such contempt for him is the placid, even-keeled way he composes himself on the hill. Doesn’t he care? Doesn’t he know how much this team needs him?

There are flashes of passion. They’re intoxicating, but fleeting, not unlike the elite stuff he only rarely brings with him when he toes the rubber.

Would he dance with the boys in the bullpen? Would he hoot and holler when the Cubs blast a long ball? The man standing quietly over the sink, dry-towel slung over his shoulder, a simple song barely escaping his lips – is that the only Q? Is there a more ferocious Q in there somewhere? There must be.

The Cubs must find him. Find the hunger to compete. The drive to harness his potential 10, 12, 20 pitches at a time.

The strength to crush glass with his bare hands.

14-strikeouts in 6 innings against the Phillies last August. A 25-inning scoreless streak against the Brewers just as they were rising up in 2018. His postseason debut against the Nats. More than strength: dominance. More than dominance: the guy the Cubs thought they traded for back in 2017.

When a guy can strikeout 14 batters in six innings and provide 180 innings of valuable production from the rotation, why would a team like the Cubs want to ‘dial him down’ and use that kind of power on a mere 6 to 12 batters?

Because the multi-inning reliever is baseball’s latest innovation. A new high-powered device that supercharges former rotation arms to newfound efficiency. Wash-by-hand starters pumping out clean innings with dishwasher efficiency.

Josh Hader and Andrew Miller are the textbook examples, but the ubiquity of the approach has never been as clear. Only the league’s elite starters are allowed a third time through the order. Without Triple-A, even upper-crusters like Charlie Morton are returning from injury for two-inning “rehab” starts – an approach the Cubs have taken with Quintana and Tyler Chatwood.

Shorter outings protect non-elite starters from overexposure to risk – injury risk and quality risk. At this stage of his career, Quintana needs protection from both.

An Epilogue

Remember the other trade? The one we in the North no longer lament. The trade that brought in another lefty, one that snarled and flexed and mad-mugged his way to a World Series championship. The trade we wouldn’t take back no matter how good Gleyber Torres becomes.

Q peels back the bandages protecting his surgically-repaired thumb from infection. He’s not one to wax poetic, but for some reason, he thinks about 2016 when he watched from the other side of Chicago as the Cubs championship puzzle came together. At that time, he never considered the possibility of being a Chicago Cub. At that time, he was happy living in a world of black and white.

Now he lives in color, but it somehow seems brighter on the other side of Chicago – where Q used to live. Q never needed relief then. Water ran hot from the faucet and warmed his hands so he could finish the job himself. That’s the kind of guy he was then. That’s the kind of guy we looked up to then, before dishwashers were everywhere.

That other trade never should have meant more to Northsiders than his trade. Quintana’s value was so much higher. He brought so much more brute production. He was cheaper and guaranteed to stay longer.

But that other trade filled a need the Cubs haven’t been able to fill since. That trade brought a shutdown lefty into the bullpen to close out playoff games 25, 30, 50 pitches at a time. He wasn’t the hero they wanted, but the hero they needed: The Reliever.

If Q could just be that guy, we could wash the rest clean.

TC Zencka

TC Zencka contributes regularly to Pitcher List, and MLB Trade Rumors. Come say hi on Twitter.

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