Cal Quantrill Pairs Good Command With Improving Stuff

Quantrill should be a pitcher to watch this season.

A lot of the discussion around Cleveland recently has been about the players they have moved on from, rather than the players they’ve brought in. That’s not too surprising considering the quality of the names they have shipped out of town recently, and also the fact that they haven’t exactly been active in free agency in that time span either. Additionally, a lot of the players they’ve gotten in the return packages for their stars have yet to make a big impact in the major leagues, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t brought in quality players. One player that fits this mold is pitcher Cal Quantrill. He’s yet to pitch a full season in the majors and hasn’t even been a full-time starting pitcher just yet, but he has shown to be an interesting pitcher when taking a closer look.

If you’re unfamiliar with Quantrill, he is a 26-year-old former top-10 draft pick and the son of former major league reliever Paul Quantrill. The Padres drafted Cal in 2016, and he made his major league debut in 2019. He pitched mainly as a starting pitcher and didn’t set the world on fire with a 5.16 ERA and just a 20.1% strikeout rate in his 103 inning debut. With the Padres looking to grab as many aces as they can, the team included Quantrill in a deal for Mike Clevinger at the deadline in 2020. Quantrill wouldn’t be viewed as the headliner in the deal, but he had been pitching well for the Padres up until that point, with a cool 2.60 ERA and a jump in strikeouts in just 17.1 innings, the catch being that it was almost all in relief.

Despite that, it looks to be unwise to call Quantrill a simple throw-in, at least right now. It is possible that Cleveland saw something they quite liked about Quantrill’s profile. Quantrill did pitch out of the bullpen upon coming to Cleveland, save for two opener appearances at the end of the season. He still did well, with a 1.84 ERA in those 14.2 innings with Cleveland, but that on its own isn’t the most interesting, and without a guaranteed rotation spot, there wasn’t much to be excited about right away. The trade of Carlos Carrasco opened the door, but the spot is still not guaranteed to be his.

Quantrill is, however, a pitcher that I am going to be watching very closely this season if he wins a spot in the rotation, as there are things about his profile that got better in 2020 and that look quite encouraging for the future. Specifically, Quantrill looks to be a pitcher with good command, which is definitely a good skill to have, but not enough on its own to make him super interesting. What brings him to that level is that he also pairs that command with what looks to be, in my opinion, better stuff, and with that, a higher ceiling than it once looked like, say twelve months ago. Let’s dive into it.

 

Improving Stuff

 

Let’s start first with Quantrill’s overall repertoire and stuff. The sinker is his main pitch, and he threw it 48% of the time last year. This could either be viewed as a change for either Quantrill or the pitch classification systems, as Baseball Savant shows that Quantrill threw both a four-seamer and sinker in 2019, but effectively ditched the four-seamer in 2020. I’m a bit skeptical that he was actually throwing two different fastballs because the velocity and spin rate of both pitches, as well as where they were located, were pretty much identical to each other in 2019. This change may actually be just a correction in pitch classification. It’s not really all that important, but it is just some basic housekeeping that should probably be addressed.

What is actually important is what the pitch does. It’s not the most glamorous pitch at all, but it does what a sinker should do: generate ground balls and weak contact. In terms of ground balls, Quantrill’s sinker generated grounders 52.9% of the time last season, a good place to be and right in line with 2019, where they generated grounders at a 50.4% rate. That is the primary job of a sinker, and Quantrill does manage to do this. Although it’s not at the highest rate, it’s still quite good.

Standing out even more though is how much weak contact the pitch generates. Take a look for instance, at the 10 pitches, minimum 25 batted balls, from 2020 with the lowest average exit velocity:

Top-10 Single Pitch Lowest EV – 2020

We see that Quantrill’s sinker, standing at 80.3 mph, shows up with the six-lowest average exit velocity mark. Also notable, is that Quantrill is the only pitcher who has a fastball show up in the top 10, which seems like an impressive feat considering the sinker is his primary pitch. What would logically be expected to go along with such a low exit velocity number then is weak overall contact. That was the case for Quantrill’s sinker last season, and when compared to other sinkers, Quantrill stands out quite nicely:

Cal Quantrill: Sinker Results with Rankings

That is quite nice indeed. Let’s add one more wrinkle into the equation as well. When one thinks about sinker velocity, the expectation is that they’ll be low, somewhere around 90-92 mph, and lower in some cases. For Quantrill though, and maybe what is most interesting about his sinker, is that the pitch has an average velocity of 94.9 mph, definitely not making him a slouch in this regard. That was good enough for the 17th-highest sinker velocity mark last season, with a reminder that the top of the leaderboard is riddled with power arms such as Dustin May and Luis Castillo, two pitchers that can sling the ball as few others can. This is something to keep tabs on in the future, as the jury is still out over whether or not Quantrill can maintain that velocity in a full starter’s workload, although it is perhaps notable that in his two “opener” starts last year, in which he went four innings and then three innings, that his sinker averaged 95.1 mph and 94.6 mph, respectively, so there could be some indication that this heightened velocity may translate well into five or six inning-long outings.

So the overall package with Quantrill’s sinker is that the pitch has done a good job of generating both ground balls and weak contact, and at a velocity that is quite high for the pitch type and among the best in the game. While the pitch didn’t generate many swinging strikes at just an 8.5% clip, it didn’t necessarily need to. Quantrill made up for it with weak contact, but also by commanding it well — more on that later. The overall gist of it though is that Quantrill got a lot of called strikes on the pitch due to exceptional command and location of the pitch, which led his sinker to generate a 32.8% CSW rate last season, among the best of all sinkers and just a tad over two percent off the top of the leaderboard.

Moving on to the other pitches in his repertoire, the slider is a pitch that saw more usage in 2020 compared to 2019. It was thrown just a touch over 20% in 2019, but was elevated to 35.3% last year. This is a pitch that has been later developing for Quantrill and looks to have gotten better with time. We don’t have minor league detail for this publicly available, but just doing a comparison of the pitch’s performance over the last two years in the majors shows this. First, looking at pure spin rate, Quantrill added 84 RPMs of spin to his slider on average in 2020. It’s not the most impressive rate of added spin — definitely not in the same stratosphere as Trevor Bauer or Shane Bieber — but it was still good enough to be one of the 20 largest increases year to year. Spin isn’t everything for a slider, but what the extra spin perhaps did was lead to more movement, which was something Quantrill’s slider struggled to find in 2019. Quantrill appeared to take a step forward in this are last year:

Cal Quantrill: Slider Improvement

Compared to similar sliders (thrown at close to the same velocities), Quantrill’s slider had seven percent more drop than average, which is quite good. Not elite, but still good. He’s been getting better movement the last two years, and there could be more to find there in the future as well. However, one thing that needs to be brought up when evaluating Quantrill’s slider is that it got hit hard last year. It was by far his worst pitch by batting average, slugging, and wOBA allowed last year (excluding the seldom-thrown four-seamer per Statcast), which seems to contradict my view that the pitch is actually getting better.

One thing that’s odd about Quantrill’s slider usage is that it looks to be a pitch that he likes to throw in the zone for strikes. That’s true when looking at pure zone rate, it clocked in at a 51.4% mark last year, which was one of the highest rates. However, Quantrill also left too many sliders in the heart of the zone, 27.1% of them to be exact, putting him in the top ten in the game last year. Those pitches, as would be expected from hanging sliders, were hit hard. Enough of them can cause a lot of damage to a particular pitch’s stats. There are things to like about Quantrill’s slider location — he does throw it at an exceptionally high rate in the shadow zone, which plays into his overall strategy (more on that later), but getting more of those pitches out of the heart of the zone will definitely help Quantrill out more. Paired with improving movement, that could turn the pitch into a plus for him. It’s still a work in progress but ultimately looks to be trending in the right direction.

The final pitch in his repertoire is the changeup. The changeup was more of a focal point earlier in his career, and was his main secondary offering as a minor leaguer, but in 2020, he shuffled up his pitch mix a bit. He relied on the changeup less, making the sinker-slider combination his go-to combo, with him pocketing the changeup more and instead using it almost exclusively against left-handed hitters. He threw just five changeups to righties last year, with a whopping 91% of his changeups going to left-handed hitters, up big time from 2019, where he still favored the changeup against lefties, but threw them to lefties at an 82% rate.

The pitch seems to do its job, as it generates a ton of weak contact, and with a lot of that contact going on the ground. It’s an extremely small sample of batted-balls and maybe not even worth putting much stock into, but the pitch did have an 80.2 mph average exit velocity mark last season. If you recall, that’s nearly identical to Quantrill’s sinker, which gives Quantrill two pitches that had the lowest exit velocity marks last season, just with the stipulation that his changeup didn’t qualify for that particular leaderboard. Additionally, the pitch had over 50% ground-ball rate for the second consecutive year, this year checking in at 54.5% — slightly higher than his sinker. Some of this can definitely be discounted, but the least, it looks like Quantrill has a secondary pitch that he has confidence in and one that can do a good of suppressing opposite-handed hitters. That’s something that will be more necessary if he were to take on a starter’s workload.

Overall, while Quantrill’s pitch repertoire isn’t the flashiest or most impressive, it is one that manages to get the job done. His sinker does what a sinker is supposed to do, and at a velocity high enough that could lead to more whiffs, his slider is improving, and his changeup looks to be a competent enough offering against opposite-handed hitters. That all looks good, but what makes Quantrill more intriguing is that he pairs that with what looks like good command. Let’s take a closer look at that.

 

Good Command

 

Pitcher command is a difficult thing to try and quantify. There’s no one true “go-to” metric that accurately describes command. Rather there are a handful of stats that get cited most often that help describe command. One of the main ones is zone-rate. Looking at Quantrill’s zone rate, we see a 43.8% zone-rate mark last season, which doesn’t quite line up with a type of pitcher that would be expected to have good command. For context, that was one of the 30 lowest zone rates in baseball last season and well below the 48.4% league average. What gives then?

Well, let’s take a look at another stat in edge rate. In terms of edge rate, Quantrill was actually one of the best last season. His 45.4% edge rate is better than the 42.6% league average and is right in line with some notable names such as Kyle Hendricks, Aaron Nola, and Dallas Keuchel, among others. As it appears, Quantrill could be viewed as having poor command by one metric (zone rate), or having superb command by another (edge rate). It makes sense to say that Quantrill has plus command when you think about what edge rate is trying to measure, which is how consistently a pitcher is able to paint the black. It takes good command to be able to do that consistently. While some of those pitches will naturally land outside of the zone, which impacts zone rate, they are still pitches that are right along the portion of the plate that still looks tempting enough for hitters to swing at or risk a called strike. They’re not in the heart of the zone, so it’s more difficult to make hard contact, with also perhaps explains Quantrill’s success in that area. Knowing this, it looks like Quantrill is doing exactly what he wants to do, as he doesn’t have the pure strikeout-level stuff, so he has to work around the edges and hope for weaker contact, something he accomplished last season.

Looking at Quantrill’s heat maps, we pretty much see visually what it is I just tried to explain:

From this, we see that his sinker in particular is quite good at painting the black, as Quantrill is working the pitch almost exclusively on the outer portion of the plate (to lefties, inside to righties). With the slider, we see that he’s leaving too many in the heart of the zone as detailed earlier. It’s something he can still improve upon, but there is also a good amount of pitches in the bottom portion of the zone at the edges — exactly where we want to see them. For the changeup, it’s a little bit less of the case than the other two pitches, but it notably does follow the sinker’s location pretty well, at the same portion of the zone, just lower, which is pretty much where we would want it to be.

What is curious though is that Quantrill’s edge rate exceeds his zone rate. I was interested to see both how many pitchers also did that last season and the type of pitcher that did it. What I did was look for pitchers that faced more than 110 batters, had an edge rate better than league average, and a zone rate below league average. I then created “Edge Minus Zone rate” as a way to look for the pitchers with the biggest differences, and then filtered down further to look for pitchers with a difference greater than one percent. The results are below:

Good Edge Rate, Subpar Zone Rate – 2020

The blend of names here is interesting. It’s not perfect though, as Quantrill, Richards, and Fleming weren’t full-time starting pitchers last season, but they have been used in that role for the majority of their careers. I included fastball velocity and strikeout rate in the table to just get a general gauge of the type of pitcher we’re looking at, and we see that we have some softer tossers such as Fleming, Keuchel, Davies, Dobnak, Freeland, and Richards, alongside some harder throwers in Gallen and Nola. Ironically, Quantrill has the highest fastball velocity of the group, but he is kind of the odd pitcher out. He’s not as big of a strikeout pitcher as Gallen or Nola, but he is closer to them in terms of fastball velocity.

Of course, fastball velocity alone doesn’t make a pitcher. What ultimately makes a pitcher such as Gallen, Nola, or Keuchel better overall pitchers is the quality of their secondary stuff, especially when combined with their sharp command (Gallen, in particular, is quite good at this. In my opinion, he is the gold standard of pitchers working at the edge of the zone).

However, Quantrill has shown promise. His stuff has gotten better, although there are still question marks. At the very least, Quantrill has a plan of attack on the mound. It looks like a good one for him considering he’s not likely to strike a ton of hitters out by simply blowing high fastball after high fastball by hitters with top-of-the-line velocity and elite secondary pitches. Location is going to be more important for a pitcher like Quantrill, and he’s been able to, at least in brief looks, been able to locate them well. It’s not a new phenomenon for him, either. Looking at the heat maps from 2019, it looks like he tried to work on the edges of the zone then too, albeit not as well as in 2020. I’m very interested to see what a full season of this may look like from Quantrill, especially full time in the rotation.

 

Conclusion

 

Overall, I believe Quantrill is a pretty intriguing pitcher and one that I will be watching quite closely this season. What ultimately makes Quantrill interesting is that he has a good baseline. He can command his pitches well, with a good ability to locate on the edge of the strike zone with all three of his pitches. He can still refine that a bit too, but he’s shown that he’s capable of working on the edges at a high rate thus far in his career, which is a plus. That gives him a good foundation, but adding to the intrigue is that his stuff likely isn’t finished developing. His sinker is not only thrown at great locations, but it does a great job of getting weak contact, and at a velocity that suggests that more whiffs could be on the horizon. His slider has taken some steps forward over his career, adding more movement, and his changeup is a good option against left-handed hitters.

While Quantrill doesn’t overwhelm hitters with his pure stuff, it is a nice profile and there are things that look to be getting better. While he isn’t locked into a rotation spot right now, he should be expected to play a role for Cleveland this season at the major league level, and if he ends up with the spot outright, it shouldn’t be all that surprising to see him breakout for the team this season and perhaps end up as another Cleveland pitching development success story. The signs are there; now we wait and see if he can put it all together.

Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Matt Wallach

Matt studied accounting at UAlbany, is a Yankee fan, and writes for Pitcher List and Rotoballer where he can work with even more numbers to analyze baseball players, which is a lot more fun.

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