Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is starting pitcher José Quintana.
Quintana made 30+ starts for the seventh straight season. He dropped his walk rate from 9.2% in 2018 to 6.2 percent last season, and his 3.5 WAR (per FanGraphs’ metric) was second among Cubs pitchers, behind Kyle Hendricks.
In those 31 starts, Quintana tossed 171 innings — down from 188 2/3 in 2017 and 174 1/3 in 2018. While he posted career worsts in ERA (4.68) and WHIP (1.39), there’s reason to expect some improvement from the 31-year-old lefty in 2020.
Quintana’s FIP (3.80) was nearly a run better than his ERA last season. FIP measures what a pitcher’s ERA would be if he experienced league average results on balls in play. The discrepancy between the two means Quintana was a bit unlucky — balls finding holes, soft contact dropping in, etc.
Quintana also sported a .326 batting average on balls in play — well above the MLB average (.298). However, we can’t ignore the fact he surrendered hard contact more frequently than any season in his career.
Quintana quality of contact rates
|Type of contact
Hard contact doesn’t always translate to hits, but the lower that rate is, the better.
Expectations for this season’s role
2020 is the final year of the team-friendly contract Quintana signed with the White Sox six years ago. That deal is a big reason the Cubs traded for him in 2017, and fans need not be reminded whom the Cubs dealt to the South Side in return.
Quintana is locked in as the No. 4 starter on the Cubs’ Opening Day roster. The question everyone has is whether he'll outperform that role and look more like the guy he was on the South Side (3.51 ERA) than with the Cubs (4.23)
If the Cubs find themselves out of the playoff picture come July, Quintana is a likely trade candidate. He's durable and won't come with a hefty price tag, and for the Cubs, moving whatever is left of his salary will help them get under the luxury tax — which they've yet to do.
The Cubs need Quintana to string together good outings on a more frequent basis this season, and the key lies in his changeup.
Quintana won’t blow anyone away with his fastball — his four-seamer averaged 91.6 mph last season. That isn’t an issue itself, but it's problematic when he becomes over reliant on that and his curveball. Hitters can sit fastball knowing they won't get blown away and likely not be fooled with a changeup.
Quintana 2019 pitch usage
||Percent of time thrown
Last season, opponents hit .292 against Quintana’s four-seam fastball, .297 against his sinker and .244 against his curveball, per FanGraphs. They hit .354 against his changeup, which Quintana recently told the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Gonzales he doesn’t have a good feel for “most of the time.”
Quintana also admitted he's at his best when throwing all his pitches and hopes a new changeup grip — similar to a four-seam fastball rather than two-seam — will help him disguise the pitch better. Granted, he threw his changeup just 8 percent of the time in 2016, one of his finer campaigns. But opponents hit .243 against his four-seamer, and he threw it harder (92.6 mph) than any other season.
Quintana has shown throughout his career he's better than last season. Mixing all of his pitches effectively (and perhaps some better luck) could be the key to a bounce back year. If his performance exceeds his position in the rotation, it will be considered a win.
If he can’t bounce back, it will spell trouble for the Cubs — who need a big season from their rotation to get back to October.
The complete roster outlook series:
1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
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2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020