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Jose Quintana and finding a framer

We’re more aware than ever of the impact a good backstop can have on a pitcher. Quintana juggled catchers before gelling with Kevan Smith on the White Sox; can the other Chicago team provide him with good framing?

Chicago White Sox v Colorado Rockies Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The Cubs paid a hefty sum to nab Jose Quintana from the White Sox last week. The controlled, top-of-the-rotation arm cost the Cubs a top prospect in all of baseball in Eloy Jimenez, along with a highly touted arm in Dylan Cease, and two other more minor prospects.

This price tag should come as no surprise given Quintana’s contract situation and track record. However, Quintana had been struggling this season as a whole, with a 4.49 ERA and 4.01 FIP prior to the trade. It’s no reason to question the price, though it has caused concern with some.

Quintana’s first-half struggles have been odd, to say the least. His strikeout rate spiked from a career average near 20 percent up to about 25 percent, but that was mitigated by a 2.5-point spike in walk rate and a 3.3-point spike in HR/FB. The normally sure-firing Quintana was reduced to a somewhat wild arm who couldn’t keep the ball in the park. But Quintana’s performance shifted around June 16th.

Jose Quintana Pre- and Post-6/16

Time Frame FIP K% BB% BABIP LOB%
Time Frame FIP K% BB% BABIP LOB%
Opening Day - 6/16 4.19 22.8% 9.2% .311 66.7%
6/16 - Present 3.55 29.4% 8.4% .271 83.9%

This time period coincides with Quintana finally obtaining a personal catcher in Kevan Smith, a 29-year-old in his second season in the majors. Prior to June 16th, Quintana juggled catchers, fumbling through Geovany Soto’s short stint back with the White Sox and then onto Omar Narvaez. He had a brief encounter with Kevan Smith prior to June 16th, a time frame that included the infamous dinger-fest that was Chris Sale’s return to Chicago. But from June 16th onward, Quintana settled in with Smith for five straight starts.

And there’s something about Smith that makes Quintana’s success with him look like more than just a fluke: Of the White Sox catchers, Smith is the only one who can frame at all.

White Sox Catcher Framing

Catcher Team Framing Chances Framing Runs
Catcher Team Framing Chances Framing Runs
Geovany Soto CWS 735 -2.6
Omar Narvaez CWS 2,905 -4.4
Kevan Smith CWS 2,427 1.5

Soto has clearly not been much of a framer for years, but he fell off further in his short stint this season. Narvaez is among the bottom 15 framers in all of baseball as a part-time catcher. Meanwhile, Smith ranks in the top 25 in framing runs this season.

There is notable improvement on a pitch-level basis for Quintana after his permanent switch to Smith.

Quintana Before Kevan Smith

Pitch Strikes Whiffs
Pitch Strikes Whiffs
Fourseam 65.92% 8.43%
Sinker 70.93% 5.81%
Change 37.65% 8.24%
Curve 55.79% 13.42%

Quintana After Kevan Smith

Pitch Strikes Whiffs
Pitch Strikes Whiffs
Fourseam 64.39% 5.85%
Sinker 73.53% 3.92%
Change 56.90% 10.34%
Curve 51.02% 17.01%

Quintana experienced a massive gain on the amount of times his changeup was called for a strike and the whiffs generated by it. It’s a pitch that he only throws about eight percent of the time, but it adds a change of speed to his arsenal, and thus a whole new dimension to his approach to opposing hitters. On top of that, Quintana’s top-notch curveball garnered 26.4 percent more whiffs than it had previously, despite a slight drop in the times thrown for a strike. It makes sense: with a better framer, you can afford to nibble around the edges of the zone more, which leads to more whiffs (and less hard contact, which could also explain why Quintana’s home run problem subsided in this post-6/16 stretch.)

Now, the change to Smith may have simply coincided with the positive regression that we were expecting to see from Quintana. The curveball wasn’t quite working and he wasn’t throwing strikes; that’s not the Jose Quintana anyone is used to, and that’s not the Jose Quintana we expected to continue to see. But the causes and effects of framing have been well documented, and a change like this can make a big impact. These two things are not mutually exclusive, and Smith likely helped Quintana along when he seemed to be finding his form and rhythm already.

With the Cubs, Quintana will pitch to Willson Contreras. Contreras has had a somewhat rough season as far as framing is concerned; he’s currently sitting at -1.4 framing runs over 4,477 chances. That’s not great. But last season, he generated 4.3 framing runs over 2,817 chances. So, we know the framing talent is there, along with Contreras’s other strong attributes.

Jose Quintana is better than what he showed in the first half. It seems, too, that the Cubs have acquired him at just the right time for that to show. But Kevan Smith deserves some praise in helping Quintana reach that level again, and the Cubs would be wise to pay close attention to who Quintana is pitching to.

Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a Stats Intern at Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.