Appreciation is a skill worth practicing. While it’s better directed toward our spouses, children, friends—the parts of our life that actually matter—sometimes it is just easier to aim at baseball and its players. It’s possible now that we’re at Peak Written Baseball Content, with dozens of player profiles written each week by talented, insightful writers and smart, cutting analysts at every possible outlet. As a group of sport enthusiasts, we are in no short supply of words of appreciation directed at the game’s best, worst, and everything in between.
Despite this, sometimes there are players who seem to fall through the cracks for a moment in time. Even true seamheads can’t always focus on each of the 760-plus major-league players. Are you surprised to hear that Arizona’s Jean Segura has 5.0 WARP, only trailing Corey Seager and Daniel Murphy among all National League middle infielders? Does it shock you to see that D.J. LeMahieu has a .416 on-base percentage, a mark that’s third-best in baseball, only topped by Mike Trout and Joey Votto? Even after investing so much time and energy into this baseball season and its players, there are things that shock me and blind spots in my knowledge of the game.
Jose Quintana used to be one of those blind spots for me, and he has been for most of the past four years. He is, by my accounting, the quietest ace in the American League, and perhaps the least-appreciated pitcher in baseball. His skill and performance are undeniable, and currently he is the 12th-best pitcher in baseball according to Baseball Prospectus’s DRA-based WARP. That surpasses Rick Porcello and Johnny Cueto, Carlos Carrasco and Stephen Strasburg. He’s a pitcher who throws a lot of innings—reaching 200 or more in each of the past three seasons, and poised to surpass that number this year—but by rate stats he’s pretty great too. His DRA, ERA, FIP, and cFIP are all top-25 in baseball among starting pitchers.
Yet, for some reason, he doesn’t get the same coverage as other top-end starting pitchers. A vigorous search of the internet has turned up the following during his exceptional 2016 season:
· Here at BP, Quintana has only really appeared in our What You Need To Know and Fantasy articles—he was name-checked in a few Rubbing Muds and a Two-Strike Approach, but never received any special focus.
· It appears that FanGraphs has featured exactly one article focusing on Quintana this season, a glowing review of his performance by Dave Cameron back in May.
· ESPN’s player page on Quintana only pointed me toward Mark Simon’s list of the eight pitchers in contention for the AL Cy Young Award and a handful of trade rumor pieces. It was a similar story on FoxSports.com and CBSSports.com.
· I could not find anything like a review of Quintana’s overall performance or a player profile on Quintana at The Hardball Times, Sports Illustrated, or Sports On Earth (save a re-publication of Cat Garcia’s BP South Side piece on Quintana at SoE).
The places where I go to consume baseball content online… have kind of passed over Quintana this season. In fact, the most press Quintana got this season came as a result of him not being appreciated! After being (temporarily) left off the AL All-Star team, he got some short play as one of the biggest snubs before being selected at the last minute as an injury replacement for division-mate Danny Salazar. Other than that… there was a little bit of press for Quintana around May, then silence.
There’s no squad of Quintana truthers among baseball’s cognoscenti, no team of eagle-eyed pre-scouts waving their arms and trying to call attention to his abilities. We already kind of know that he’s very good. It’s just that it doesn’t seem like anyone* cares.
* – This isn’t precisely true, of course. White Sox fans—and the sites that create good baseball writing for those fans—are aware of his excellence. Our own BP South Side is chock full of game recaps that tout his skills and a few sharp profiles. They certainly recognize just how lucky they are to have a pitcher who’s just maybe a little bit worse than Chris Sale.
So why is it? Why is he as underserved as any top-tier starting pitcher in baseball? He’s got an interesting backstory (He used to be a Met! He used to be a Yankee!) and has inserted himself in Cy Young consideration while improving year over year. Why aren’t we talking about him with the same fervor we have for Carlos Martinez or Kyle Hendricks or Danny Duffy?
The Chicago White Sox Factor
I’m going to get into trouble here, but I have a hot take: The White Sox are one of the most nondescript, boring teams in MLB. The kid in me wants to blame it on the flat, classic-but-boring Dick-Van-Dyke-show uniforms. But maybe it’s the fact that they’re the second-tier team in the Second City, or that they don’t have star players with the outsized personalities of other franchises. Maybe the reason that the White Sox are boring is just because they’re not very good?
If I had a nickel for every game the Sox are out of first place in the AL Central, I’d be well on my way to a dollar. They haven’t been above .500 for the season since 2012, haven’t made the playoffs since 2008. And baseball seasons are like dog years—four seasons can feel like a lifetime. (Kevin Youkilis was that team’s third baseman! What!?) Despite the franchise’s best efforts to the contrary, it just seems like they can’t get a foothold in the national baseball conversation unless there’s some strange story leaking out about Adam (and Drake) LaRoche or their one true superstar slicing up jerseys.
Quintana isn’t even the only overlooked player on his own team. Adam Eaton has been remarkable as the squad’s linchpin outfielder, and has accumulated runs saved via advanced defensive metrics as if he were Pac-Man gobbling up dots. Jose Abreu has turned his season around. Despite making legitimate deals in free agency (David Robertson) and the trade market (Todd Frazier), the Sox are constantly being overwhelmed over the past few years, but Kansas City mostly but also by Cleveland and Detroit and sometimes Minnesota. That’s saying something.
The Chris Sale Factor
Amazingly despite his skill, Quintana is not the best left-handed 27-year-old starting pitcher on his own team. Chris Sale has probably been one of the five best starting pitchers of the past half-decade, whereas Quintana has probably only been one of the best dozen. Just about everything Quintana does, Sale does better.
|Career||Chris Sale||Jose Quintana|
|Strikeouts per 9||10.1||7.4|
|Walks per 9||2.1||2.3|
|Cy Young Finishes||3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th||yeah right|
Strikeouts, walks, innings pitched, wins, All-Star appearances, Cy Young votes… you name it, Sale’s atop Quintana on that career leaderboard. Sometimes it’s by just a smidgen but he’s always there, hovering atop Quintana and creating a glass ceiling Quintana might never be able to crack. In this, Quintana’s greatest season, Sale still is surpassing him by ERA, cFIP, DRA, strikeout rate, and innings pitched. (Quintana just tied Sale in FIP at 3.41.)
|2016||Chris Sale||Jose Quintana|
|Strikeouts per 9||9.1||8|
|Walks per 9||1.9||2|
As nice as it may be to not have the pressure of being a team’s no. 1 starter, Quintana may never get his full complement of glory while Sale leads the White Sox rotation. Until then, he is the Luigi to Sale’s Mario, the Jesse Pinkman to his Walter White.
The Lack-of-Style-Points Factor
I think that the most important reason why Quintana doesn’t receive the coverage of other players is an absence of the outstanding qualities that usually draw us to a ballplayer from an analytical or a viral perspective. We need something to make him stick in our minds, and Quintana is brain Teflon.
You can start with his repertoire. GIFs of his pitches don’t go viral; there’s no Defector here, no frisbee slider (no slider at all!), no 100 mph fastball. If you look up Quintana’s video clips on MLB.com, you get a collection of highlights from solid-to-great starts, glowing quotes from guys like Sale and Robin Ventura, and… not much else. When you watch the recap of his eight-inning, six strikeout, one-run start from September 13 on MLB Network’s Quick Pitch, it’s a collection of the Sox’s offensive highlights and a brief clip of Brandon Guyer going yard against him. It’s all collation–the individual good moments add up to something great, but the great moments are few and far between.
So if it’s not the stuff, maybe it’s the stats? The “problem” is that the stats don’t ring major bells either. Though Quintana is among the league leaders in most pitching stats worth tracking, he leads the league in… nothing. While he’s currently third in the American League in ERA, that’s as high as he climbs on any leaderboard over his entire career. He’s avoided black ink on his Baseball Reference page as smoothly as he’s avoided allowing earned runs. On a seasonal basis, he’s free of the ups and downs that thrill and worry—he just gets slightly better each season. It’s like the old, creepy adage about slowly boiling a frog in a pot of water: The ever-rising increase in heat prevents the frog from noticing that something is up, rather than a sudden shock.
(By the way, his fastball is like that boiling pot—it is also heating up over time.)
Maybe there’s something that stands out in Quintana’s background? We tend to gravitate toward top prospects, and players carry their phenom status long into their big-league careers. Quintana was an unheralded international free agent out of Colombia—definitely not a top prospect—who flitted between two New York teams in the low minors until being picked up as a minor-league free agent in 2012 by the White Sox. When he debuted (after less than 50 innings at Double-A), he didn’t do so with a bang. He mopped up the last 5 2/3 innings of a double-header after Phil Humber allowed eight runs before finishing the third. Effective? Sure. Exciting? Hardly. He never carried the prospect cache
So what about an outsized personality? Sabermetricians gush over “cerebral” players like Cole Figueroa, and players with command of social media can find their way into the national discussion more swiftly than those who don’t engage with fans. Quintana Tweets infrequently, and mostly in Spanish. Like many admirable people, Quintana mostly follows Rule #1. Since MLB doesn’t always push its best players into positions to boost their Q-ratings—perhaps especially the game’s Latino players—we don’t know much about Quintana’s personality save the snippets we can pull from the occasional interview or clip of him doing his work on the mound. He never pulled an outlandish contract in free agency—his unbelievably team-friendly $21 million extension from 2014 has club options that will likely keep him locked up until 2020—and he hasn’t rated the trade-deadline frenzy that other top-tier starters have. He simply is, and does.
As a result of the Sox, the Sale, and the dearth of eye-grabbing qualities, Quintana slides quietly by, doing his work, avoiding much national notice. He’s not breaking out, so there’s no story to write about there. He’s just steadily improving, a rock-solid presence for a team near the bottom of the standings and eclipsed by a shinier ace in his own rotation. The only thing that I know for sure is that we should be talking about Jose Quintana more, sending a few extra superlatives his way. I dunno, maybe we could all go in on a fruit basket for the guy. His (relative) anonymity is deserving of a swift kick in the pants, his performance deserving of our full attention.