How to put this in the most complimentary way…
Last year, during Jose Quintana’s scintillating start to the season, where he posted a 2.30 ERA through his first 12 appearances (10 starts, 70.1 innings) and only walked 13 batters, I felt the White Sox were wise to ride the wave as long as they could.
Both because they were uncharacteristically short on viable starters at the time, but also because Quintana’s success didn’t make much sense. He was a young, raw left-hander without much stuff, without even a changeup, who had gone from showing good control in Double-A to being a deadly marksman in the majors.
The second-half fade where Quintana’s lack of polish and secondary offerings steepened the consequences of his miracle run of fastball command coming to an end (After his eight shutout innings in Boston on July 19, his four-seam fastball saw an approximately 3% dip in both strike and swinging strike percentage) seemed inevitable. It was nice that despite having more earned runs allowed than strikeouts over his final 12 starts, Quintana still escaped the season with a 3.76 ERA and that one warrior effort against Detroit in September.
But there’s another way to interpret Quintana’s season, or possibly many other ways, and the White Sox sure as hell didn’t read it in the way I just described. They seemed to see it more as a 23 year-old impressively holding his own after being thrusted into the highest level of competition and fighting through fatigue as he vaulted his single-season career-high in innings pitched by over 80.
Not only did the Sox not try to force out Quintana out of the rotation for the bat-missing stuff of Hector Santiago, but they ended any competition between the two before it could begin. Quintana has pushed off any undue attention to the decision by being excellent in spring training, but Ray Olmedo hit a home run Wednesday, Andy Gonzalez had the game-winning hit in a World Baseball Classic game and occurrences in March are very much meaningless.
But now there’s six years of Jose Quintana to work with, even if back-end starters don’t project to be something the organization has to treat like precious cargo over the next few years he’s provided a reason to watch and take an interest in his spring training work.
“I’m really locked in on my changeup,” said Quintana through translator and White Sox coach Lino Diaz. “I’m working on all areas, but the changeup is the concentration right now for me.”
The outside assumption is that any pitcher can be taught any pitch at any time, especially since Don Cooper keeps adding cutters (and Quintana even seems like a possible adopter, given his reliance on working the inner half). But Quintana’s changeup existed enough on a show-me level to view it as and already in-progress pitch that he could move into his already limited arsenal rather than keeping it as a gimmick.
The amount of success Quintana had last year just plugging his fastball around and toggling between passable but far from dominant curves and sliders suggests he doesn’t need Chris Sale-level fade on his changeup to offer him a greater hold on the plate. Getting hitters to peer more at the arm-side will allow Quintana to do more of what he does best–sneaking his fastball on the hands of right-handed hitters.
It’s odd to think about Quintana improving upon last season because even with tweaks and adjustments, his pedigree and raw materials suggest last year’s 3.76 ERA should rank among his best performances and six years of team control is probably more than the Sox will find use for. But this line of thinking presupposes that we understand completely why Quintana was successful last season. “Variance” is always a great bet to be the underlying cause, but lacks the certainty it had with such incidents as “Brent Lillibridge” and “Zach Stewart’s near-perfect game.”
Actually having to think about whether the fifth starter might be good is, of course, better than most.
Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan