By acquiring Jose Quintana, the Cardinals continue to aim higher


Admittedly, I was disappointed when Tuesday’s trade deadline came and passed, and the Cardinals biggest acquisition was José Quintana. Once a top of the rotation arm and dream 2017 trade candidate who yielded a freaking haul for the White Sox in 2017, Quintana performed like a back-of-the-rotation innings eater for two seasons in Chicago before COVID and a dishwashing accident derailed his 2020 campaign. He then signed a one year deal for $8 million with the Angels for 2021 where he began the season as a starter. After nine starts, an 0-3 record and 7.22 ERA, the Angels banished him to the bullpen where he continued to pitch poorly and was eventually waived and picked up by the Giants, before being designated for assignment by the end of the year. Moving quickly before the lockout, Quintana found his next match with the Pirates on another one year deal, this time only worth $2 million but with a clear role in the rotation for a “rebuilding” squad in need of some innings. As the veteran leader of the Bucs, Quintana has enjoyed a resurgence and pitched to the tune of a 3.50 ERA through August 2nd, his best mark since 2016 even after adjusting for this year’s putrid offensive environment.


Now, Quintana will join a new squad in playoff contention but also in desperate need of some innings. Jack Flaherty and Steven Matz are both probably done for the season, at least in a practical sense if not yet a literal one. Adam Wainwright and Miles Mikolas have held their own atop the rotation, but St. Louis has penciled in ~10 other starters that have collectively contributed a 4.83 ERA (4.73 FIP) and a 15-20 record as of August 2nd. Quintana should slot right into the #3 spot in the Cardinals rotation and, by my estimation, the Cardinals acquired him basically for free (with apologies to Johan Oviedo and Malcom Nunez).


So what’s fueling Quintana’s turnaround? ESPN suggested that maybe he was avoiding the “heart” of the plate or throwing fewer “meatballs,” which may be contributing to his improved ability to keep the ball in the park. And while it’s true that he’s throwing down the middle at a career low rate, the pitches that have ended up over the ‘heart’ of the plate have been worth 2.3 runs below average per 100 pitches, worse than his career rate of 1.1 runs below average per hundred.


Looking elsewhere, you could point to the fact that Quintana’s down years have generally coincided with elevated BABIP, lower strand rates (i.e. the percentage of runners left on base), and higher HR/FB rates – while pitchers exercise some control over these outcomes, they are often more dependent on defense and luck. The Cardinals have a good defense playing in a pitcher’s park, which has helped the pitching staff outperform its FIP by nearly half a run since 2019 (3.89 ERA vs. 4.28 FIP) and may bode well for Quintana’s ability to continue keeping runs at a premium.


Where I think there might be something more tangible is in Quintana’s pitch mix where he’s made a notable change this season: after using his changeup only 9.9% of the time for his career through 2021, Quintana has turned to the changeup 23.4% of the time this year. However, the results have been mostly the same, with Pitch Info estimating the changeup has been worth 2.2 runs below average per 100 pitches compared to 2.0 runs below average per hundred for his career.



Optimistically, you could make an argument that the deployment of a more even pitch mix has made Quintana more difficult to predict. It does seem like this has helped him get back into counts when he falls behind - his FIP after getting into hitter’s counts has improved by almost two runs from 6.25 from 2018 through 2021 to 4.30 in 2022, alongside a 47 point drop in wOBA from .378 to .331.


For a pitcher who no longer has overpowering stuff, unpredictability may be the key to rediscovering success. Take a look at Quintana’s curveball, which has a positive run value (+4.1 in 2022 per Pitch Info) for the first time since 2015. I’ve included some of the pitch characteristics below, but in my mind there’s not much here – he’s getting better results on what essentially looks like the same pitch as he’s been throwing for years now.



However, as we’ve witnessed with Adam Wainwright’s renaissance, keeping hitters off your curveball isn’t necessarily just about your curveball. To take a page from my former self: pitch tunneling is all about the flight path of the baseball and how similar the flight of one pitch appears to another before they break in separate directions. Curveballs are probably the toughest pitch to tunnel – most have a “bunny hop,” meaning they go up a little bit when they’re released from the pitcher’s hand before they break down. And while you can’t really get rid of the hop, you can disguise it with the threat of a high fastball.


Sure enough, look at where Quintana is locating his fastball in 2022 compared to the few years before:


By cloaking his two primary offerings in a better disguise, Quintana has challenged hitters in a way that he hasn’t in years. The results have been a revelation: Quintana has limited hitters to a .239 wOBA against his curveball and .287 wOBA on his fourseamers so far during 2022, compared to .299 versus the curve and .328 versus the heater from 2018 to 2021.


While we can’t read hitters minds, it appears that the threat of the high fastball has made them less comfortable in the box. Check out this sequence to ring up Austin Meadows – the first pitch is the setup high fastball, and the second is the putaway curve (complete with a heatmap for the curve to lefties):



By establishing a high fastball before going to the curve, Quintana is able to disguise the curveball's small hop out of his hand and catch Meadows off balance. You can see why – those pitches both began their flight traveling slightly up out of Quintana's hand and looked almost identical for the first few feet before breaking out 25 inches apart.



One cherry picked example doesn’t make a trend, but a pattern shows up more broadly in his pitch data and suggests that hitters are less confident in what Quintana is throwing them. When Quintana has thrown a curveball outside the zone in 2022, batters have chased 35% of the time - the second highest rate of his career, trailing only his 36.6% mark in 2015. When he throws it in the zone, hitters are only putting the ball in play 29% of the time (near his lowest career rate) and making weak contact when they do.


The opposite sequence has its benefits, too. As a hitter, the book on Quintana would tell you that a pitch that looks like it’s starting high has a great chance of being a curveball, and a curveball that starts up high is going to end up being a hittable pitch inside the strike zone. But what happens when you see the pitch start high and guess wrong?



You get blown away by 90 mph cheese, that’s what happens. After taking a massive hack at a 2-0 curveball, Luke Voit is late on a 2-1 fastball and then chases another upstairs for the strikeout. Voit isn’t the only one to chase the high heater and come up empty, either – when Quintana throws a fastball outside the zone, hitters are swinging 33% of the time, by far a career high, and have come up empty on those swings about 43% of the time, the second highest rate of Quintana’s career.


Anecdotally, it looks like the Cardinals think they have a unique play here, and they’ve had relative success executing on the strategy in recent years under Mike Maddux. Wainwright has admirably extended his career by turning up his 89 mph heater. Wade LeBlanc and JA Happ were both guys who threw unimpressive fastballs up in the zone with some degree of success. Miles Mikolas has thrown his fastball a few inches higher on average as a Cardinal than he did in his first run in the majors with the Padres and Rangers, and Jon Lester made a similar adjustment after joining the Cardinals in 2021. Jordan Montgomery also appears to fit this mold. Most of those guys feature a prominently feature a curveball, even though the big benders have been going out of style in favor of hard sliders.


As an aside, the Jordan Montgomery deal will probably garner negative reviews, but it’s a good deal. Montgomery has an arm that can throw pitches, something the Cardinals desperately need, and he’s been mostly good over his last 270 innings. Bader and Montgomery are projected for the same WAR next year, Bader is unlikely to make an impact this year, and I wouldn’t be the guy to put his money on a defense-first centerfielder with plantar fasciitis. I don’t know what happens in centerfield if Carlson gets hurt; hopefully we don’t find out.


The addition of Quintana probably doesn’t move the needle much in the grand scheme of things for the Cardinals – Fangraphs gave them a 1.2% chance to win the World Series before the trade deadline and 1.2% after. Injuries and a lack of depth may have prevented the Cardinals from making bigger moves, as it’s hard to see this team truly contending without Flaherty and Matz which in turn makes the price tag for Juan Soto less palatable. Aside from the pitchers, the two positions which made the most sense to upgrade once Soto was off the board were catcher and designated hitter, and you know the team wasn’t going to displace Yadier Molina and Albert Pujols in their last hurrah. In the end, the Cardinals did what the Cardinals do, and they’ll hope it’s enough to get them into October.

 

Credit to Baseball Savant, Fangraphs, and Brooks Baseball for all of their data and stat contributions to this post, as well as to @cardinalsgifs for his work and for letting me write.