(Photo by Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire)
If you stop and think about who would be the most challenging pitcher to face with two strikes, I doubt you’d consider Jose Quintana. Out of 90 eligible pitchers, he’s currently 46th in strikeout rate and 70th in K/BB%. In 2018, he’s striking out hitters at a rate to match his career average but a good 5% lower than his 2017 rate. Yet, Quintana (who will face the New York Mets this evening) is doing something better than any other pitcher in baseball.
Quintana’s K/BB rate is, on the surface, what’s causing his troubles. That’s important because there is a good relationship between K/BB% and WAR. I accumulated five years of data using 229 eligible pitchers to validate this information. While WAR is technically a counting stat, I averaged out the pitcher’s WAR through those five years in lieu of actual total. Chart 1 demonstrates an R2 of 49%.
Chart 2 corroborates that, showing how Quintana’s K/BB rate is directly correlated to his overall success with the exception of arguably his best season in 2015.
It’s obvious that Quintana isn’t having a good start to 2018. His FIP is showing he has pitched worse than he has in his entire career and is mostly in sync with his ERA. In addition to that, his hard-hit rate is much higher than his career average of just under 30%; his barrel rate is slightly dipped yet his average exit velocity is 2MPH harder than its been the last three seasons. Generally, his plate discipline isn’t deviating all that much from what he’s done in the past. However, Quintana is having a hard time getting hitters to chase, as his O-Swing% is a good 3-4% off of his average and his swing rate, in general, is down; likely a direct result of that lowered chase rate.
Another discipline figure that’s altered in an unfavorable way is his diminished F-Strike%; percent of first pitches thrown for strikes. You can see that the 2018 portion of Chart 3 shows his first pitch is taken at just over a 2-1 ratio.
Looking at Chart 3, you see that throughout his career Quintana’s swing versus take rate is 39% in favor of taking the first pitch. In 2018, that spread is larger with 43%. Another oddity is that hitters have a much larger OPS when swinging at Quintana’s first delivery this year while it’s been an even split throughout his seven-year career. Keep in mind that through two months, we don’t necessarily have a reliable sample to work with
The further into the count you get with Quintana, the worse your chances of beating him are. Encompassing his entire career from first pitch to a 2-1, 1-2, or 3-0 count, batter OPS ranges from 2.300 (3-0) to .827 (0-1). The case remains the same in 2018 for the most part with the exception of a full count, which yields a .894 OPS. Through 25 at-bats, hitters are posting a 1.240 OPS when they make contact on Quintana’s first offering. However, as you can ascertain from what’s happening in 2018, you better hit that first pitch or your chances of success plummet from there. Considering just 8.1% of his first pitches not swung at land for strikes, it would be best to lay off.
And that brings us to what actually is working for Quintana; with two strikes, no other pitcher holds hitters to a worse batting average. Using pitchers who have thrown at least 750 pitchers this season, Quintana keeps hitters in check with a .079 average. Of those 113 participating pitchers, the median BAA is .171. 31.1% of all pitches are under the various two-strike counts. There isn’t really an element of luck to this, either, as the expected batting average spread is only .037 (.116 xBA against the actual BA of .079). 50.5% of those two-strike pitches end in strikeouts; 16 caught looking and 35 whiffs. The remainder 49.5% of pitches result in just eight balls in play becoming hits.
Is there a platoon advantage for Quintana? There is a large handedness split with 75% of hitters faced are from the right, but batting average is exactly the same regardless of where the hitter stands. Is this a typical attribute to Quintana? Not exactly. Quintana has been around/near the top of the list but never the best under these circumstances.
Quintana also had an unsatisfactory start last season but was able to right the ship when he moved to Wrigley. There is no way to be certain that Quintana’s league-low BAA with two strikes will have any impact on his performance going forward; chances are, it is meaningless. As mentioned, Quintana isn’t a high-strikeout guy and he doesn’t need to be. What he’s had trouble avoiding is getting behind the hitter, which causes the imbalance in his K/BB rate and creates a major impediment. Regardless, the bottom line is Quintana needs to do a better job getting ahead of hitters early which will give him the significant advantage he needs to get himself back to 2015-2016 form. The Cubs gave up too much for him to be pitching like this going forward.