After the Cubs’ tightrope-walking win in Game 4 of the NLCS, Jose Quintana takes the mound tonight in another elimination game. He’s facing off against Clayton Kershaw, a rested Dodgers bullpen, and a Dodgers lineup that looks much more comfortable against left-handed pitching of late. Quintana will be on regular rest after pitching valiantly on one day’s rest in Game 1 of this NLCS, only giving up two runs in the fifth (his last inning of work) after fatigue set in.
A couple of weeks ago in this space, Anthony Rescan took a look at the emergence of Quintana’s changeup since his move to the Cubs. A substantial increase in the pitch’s natural left-to right and downward movement in his time with the Cubs has led to a 20 percentage point increase in overall swing rate on the pitch, nearly doubling the whiff and ground ball rates Quintana was getting on his changeup as a South Sider this year.
Here, I’ll focus on Quintana’s shift from the four-seamer to the two-seamer as his primary fastball, and how his command of the latter pitch in particular situations represents a significant key in tonight’s game.
Since riding up the Red Line to his new team, Quintana has increased use of his two-seam fastball from 20 to 37.6 percent in the regular season, and all the way up to a whopping 53.8 percent in the postseason. This change comes along with a parallel reduction in four-seam fastball usage—from 41.3 to 26.3 percent on either side of the trade, falling to just 12.7 percent in the postseason.
The two below .gifs illustrate the evolution of Quintana’s pitch mix this year in the three phases discussed above: before his trade to the Cubs, after the trade, and in the postseason. The first chart shows the pitch mix broken down by count when he faces right-handed hitters (which he has faced between 77 and 79 percent of the time across all three samples), while the second shows the same breakdown against left-handed hitters.
While the sample size in the postseason is only 197 pitches, it is striking how reliant Quintana has been on his two-seamer, particularly when behind in the count. It is literally the only pitch he has used in the postseason in the hitters’ counts of 2-0 and 3-1. And this despite only a negligible post-trade increase in whiff rate from 5.19 to 5.95, and a noticeable decrease in ground ball rate on the pitch, from 48.08 to 44.59, over that time. That said, his slugging percentage allowed on the pitch has cratered since the trade, from .609, to .394, to .133 in the playoffs.
Quintana has thrown 43 pitches while behind in the count in the postseason, and 35 of them have been sinkers. Here’s a chart showing the location and result of those pitches:
There are some pretty fat pitches there; perhaps 19 of them are comfortably over the heart of the plate, and thrown in counts where hitters should be hunting fastball. Quintana has surrendered a mere two singles on these pitches despite no appreciable increase in the movement or velocity of his two-seamer.
When Quintana started to throw the two-seamer more in these situations in the second half, it was still getting hit. Quintana threw 103 behind-in-the-count two-seamers in the strike zone, with another 47 out of the zone. Batters hit .371 with two doubles, a triple, and two home runs on the 35 such pitches that they put in play, and that average jumps to .464 when you remove the pitches that were out of the zone.
It’s no surprise that Quintana delivers easier-to-hit pitches when he is behind in the count—it’s safe to say that most pitchers do. What is surprising is that he has leaned so heavily and predictably on the two-seamer in these situations in the postseason, and managed to avoid getting burned almost entirely.
While the changeup improvement and Quintana’s other adjustments since becoming a Cub have yielded significant positive results (including a career-high strikeout percentage and career-low WHIP), his sterling postseason numbers are being held down by a .172 BABIP and 0 HRs allowed, two aspects of luck that he won’t be able to count on forever (particularly if he stays as predictable as he has been so far).
In tonight’s start, it will be interesting to see whether Quintana can continue to ride the lightning on these sinkers over the plate, or whether he makes an adjustment by (a) staying ahead of hitters to minimize this issue; (b) commanding his two-seamer to stay out of the middle when he does get behind; or (c) showing the ability and confidence to throw strikes with his secondary pitches in hitters’ counts. On the other side, watch for the Dodgers to try and get to Quintana by taking an aggressive approach when the count is in their favor this time around.
Ross Drath is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on twitter @looselids.