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Jose Quintana’s secret shapeshifting

Consistent performance disguises Quintana’s battle to finish off hitters.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

People are talking about Jose Quintana. Boy, are they talking. The White Sox lefty has been the White Sox ace for approximately 792 hours, and there are lots of tweets to indicate he might be someone else’s ace or No. 2 — his longtime role in Chicago — before the hour comes when he throws another competitive pitch.

The factors that have combined to create such a conversation are easy to identify. His club is in pedal-to the-floor rebuild mode, and more importantly, his numbers are startlingly consistent. To gaze upon Quintana’s FanGraphs page is to witness a cruise ship in smooth waters, sailing for True Talent Island.

Look at those things. Since 2013, when he pitched his first complete season, he’s been a metronome of goodness.

Then I stumbled upon a fact about him: He has been involved in 31 plate appearances of 10+ pitches since 2012, more than any other pitcher (or hitter, for that matter) in that time. If you want to start the frame in the 2013 season as I did above, his 27 are second to Jake Odorizzi. I didn’t have much of a clue what that meant, so I dove in a little. When I emerged, there was a lot to parse, but the logical progression went like this:

He consistently goes to a lot of deep counts. —> He’s consistently good at getting out of the deep counts with minimal damage. —> He doesn’t do it with crazy swinging strike numbers. —> Wait, he switched his deep-count pitch mix from four-seam/curve to four-seam/two-seam between 2015 and 2016? —> And his results got better?

Conclusion: The consistency on the surface of that Quintana stat page doesn’t tell the whole story. If you are evaluating Quintana’s future, you might want to know how he’s going to put batters away, and that is not clear at all.

Let’s back up. For our purposes, I was looking into three-ball counts and the plate appearances that included them. Across the league in 2016, they resulted in a .249/.559/.432 slash line for the hitters involved, a .447 wOBA. Obviously, they’re not all created equally — a 3-0 count is a worse place for a pitcher to be than a full count — but generally, pitchers want no part of them.

There are a bunch of routes pitchers take to those counts, and Quintana’s is probably less traveled than most. He got first-pitch strikes 65 percent of the time in 2016, among the 10 highest marks for qualified pitchers; he has, in fact, been in that top 10 for every full year of his career. So, his three-ball counts are skewed toward the more advantageous side to begin with, as he’s not usually falling behind, and wildness simply doesn’t appear to be the answer.

From there, the multitude of 10+ pitch plate appearances provided a hint. Some portion of deep count pitches are going to be foul balls, and hitters are especially likely to foul things off when they are fighting to cover the plate in two-strike counts. So he’s not disposing of hitters quickly.

That’s fine. He pitches to contact — as evidenced by his never-that-great swinging strike numbers. But 2016 was a sort of plot twist in Quintana’s career — even if the twist remained true to the general theme of going unnoticed. The curveball usage that headlined most profiles of his repertoire dropped off, as did his use of the changeup, and he pumped his two-seam usage way, way up, especially in the type of counts we are discussing here.

And it looks like he had a good reason.

His curveball, even when he was putting it out there at a league-leading pace in 2015 (yes, the Rich Hill era came on that quickly), was never very good at generating whiffs. What it did generate was grounders, and thus when he paired it with the four-seamer, he ended up with a diverse, healthy mix of whiffs, grounders and pop-ups.

In 2016, though, it appears the curveball just stopped inducing grounders. In 2015, hitters slugged .275 against Quintana’s curveball, with an average launch angle of just eight degrees, per Baseball Savant. Last year, they slugged .457 against it, with an average launch angle of 16.2 degrees, fifth-highest among pitchers who had at least 50 put in play. It also got even fewer whiffs and fewer good outcomes overall.

So Quintana adjusted. He fed hitters a steady diet of fastballs, mixing his two-seamer almost evenly with his four-seamer in three-ball counts. Even in two-strike counts, the curveball was relegated to his third pitch.

Two-strike counts, 2016
via Baseball Savant

And that went brilliantly, results-wise. Among pitchers who faced at least 50 batters in three-ball counts, Quintana’s .395 OBP allowed was second-lowest to Clayton Kershaw (who throws off the curve by never, ever facing batters in three-ball counts) and his .205 SLG allowed was fourth-best among starters.

You could theorize that his fastball mix — which was a beautiful, unpredictable mix — was befuddling hitters and creating bad contact. He scored a career-low SLG on his fastballs, and just look at what hitters were facing, for instance, as they tried to guess what was coming in a full count.

Full counts, 2016
via Baseball Savant

But would you bet on that continuing? He was assisted by a microscopic .184 BABIP on three-ball counts, and his groundball rate sank to a career-low 40.4 percent. This spray chart doesn’t look particularly lucky (although it’s missing a homer), but the low slugging percentage just doesn’t seem sustainable given everything else.

Three-ball counts
via Baseball Savant

What that means going forward is anyone’s guess. It’s possible his curveball will just … come back — at which point he might get even better now that he has apparently discovered the power of his dueling fastballs. It’s also possible that he is stuck with the two-seam/four-seam game as his best option for ending at-bats, a strategy that could have its effectiveness eroded by regression and aging’s well-known effects on velocity.

I don’t have a prediction for you. I was just surprised at how choppy the waters were beneath the smooth surface of strong 200-inning seasons. Pitching, as we should all know by now, is a constantly churning storm. This is the front I’ll be watching with Quintana.

. . .

Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.