The Cubs are entering 2020 with more questions than answers. Nonetheless, the slow, agonizing offseason will soon turn over to the promise of baseball -- and regardless of what you believe about the Cubs chances this year, that promise will always be a thing of beauty.
Of the many questions surrounding the Cubs is the status of the starting rotation. We still don't know who will be the fifth starter, and it's not outrageous to think they look for outside help to fill that role. Beyond that, many questions remain concerning the already-established quartet for 2020.
On the surface, Jose Quintana is a curious case. Long revered for his durability (he has thrown at least 171 a season since 2013, including four consecutive 200-plus inning seasons), 'Q' labored for several seasons on the South Side before the infamous summer trade of 2017. In an attempt to buttress a rotation that was lacking, the Cubs front office begrudgingly parted with Eloy Jimenez and Dylan Cease in a win-now move for the unflappable Quintana.
While it’s easy to point to that trade as an absolute steal for the Pale Hose, that exercise has been beaten to death and lacks any sense of creativity two and a half years later. Despite the trade's dubious merits, Quintana has been an affordable workhorse, and there was never much doubt whether the Cubs would pick up his option for 2020. We’re left with a pitcher that, in his walk year, needs a bounce-back season -- both for his free-agent prospects as well as the Cubs’ playoff hopes.
Traditional metrics weren’t a fan of Q in 2019. His 4.68 ERA was the worst of his career and he pitched the fewest innings (171) since his rookie campaign (136.1), all of which belie what was a favorable 13-9 record in 32 starts. As one might expect, however, traditional metrics are merely just the surface.
Beyond that surface, his 2019 campaign was not the train wreck one might suggest, and it by no means guarantees any sort of steep decline for the durable southpaw. Interestingly, a significant portion of his advanced metrics (per FanGraphs) in 2019 were within range of his career norms:
2014 (Career Year)*
MLB Avg. (2019)
*2016 also produced a 4.9 WAR. I used 2014 as Q's career year given his career-best FIP.
What can be gleaned here is that Quintana, despite his above-average ERA, was a much better pitcher last season than most fans realize. Certainly, his higher-than-expected WAR is in part due to his durability, but it's clear he had some bad luck as well, with a BABIP 29 points above league average.
The Effects of Pitch Selection
The numbers are even more interesting when it comes to how his arsenal was used. Q's fastball velocity last season (91.4 MPH) remained within range of his career average (91.6), and he's maintained the same four-pitch repertoire -- four-seam, sinker, changeup, curve -- that he has used the majority of his career. The usage of each pitch has varied throughout the years, however:
Four Seam %
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs
I included Jose's two best seasons (2014 and 2016) as an appropriate contrast to his two most recent seasons. What stands out to me most is that Q dropped his four-seam usage considerably from 2018 to 2019. Not only is this antithetical to the rest of the league, but it was also the opposite approach the Cubs took with fellow rotation mate Kyle Hendricks. While his curveball usage has largely remained the same, the Cubs expressed a desire for Quintana to utilize his change more last season, and I think we will continue to see that trend in 2020.
The biggest caveat with regard to 2019 is that Q allowed the highest Hard Hit percentage of his career (38.9), a number well above his career average (30.9) despite being right in line with MLB's average last season. That number isn't altogether alarming given he was league average, but when you consider 2019 Quintana posted below-average marks with regard to velocity, spin rate, expected slugging percentage, et al, it's hard to have higher than average hopes for 2020.
A Tweak that Could Pay Dividends
There is one element that gives me hope, however, and that is how Q utilizes his four-seam offering moving forward. For much of his career, José pounded the pitch down in the zone, irrespective of whether the batter was a righty or a lefty:
In 2019, however, he showed a willingness to utilize the pitch at the top of the zone with frequency, likely in response to the launch-angle phenomenon:
Q's revamped four-seamer last season was particularly poignant from August onward, and this continued evolution could pay dividends moving forward. Per Baseball Savant, batters can't handle his high four-seamer. He surrendered a meager .071 BAA with his four-seam above the zone, basically halving the league average (.138).
Quintana is a pitcher whose career contact percentage has been worse than league average, yet his ability to miss bats last season with the four-seamer at the top and above the zone should be a revelation:
On the flip side, Baseball Savant's data suggests hitters handled Q's four-seamer in the heart of zone much better than that of the league average pitcher. His sinker is a bit more of an anomaly, to boot, demonstrating a need for pinpoint command with both fastball offerings and a healthy mix of his offspeed pitches in order to maximize his success.
Regardless of how much Q utilizes the four-seam fastball this season, its deployment should be as a weapon at the top of the zone. Coupled with his increased changeup usage and ability to spike his curve, we just might see a rejuvenated pitcher in his age 31 campaign.
So, What's Realistic for 2020?
I don't think anyone expects a Quintana that tops 200 innings with borderline-ace numbers. It is realistic that he performs like a quality number three starter, however, and should he do so the Cubs will be in a nice position throughout the season.
It's fair to expect a repeat performance of the durability that has been his career arc. That durability alone provides its own value, and if the Cubs continue to tweak his arsenal and achieve optimal results, it's not outrageous to think Quintana can be solidly above league average -- out-pitching his rather modest projections in the process.
For the Cubs to have a successful season a lot has to go right. The mystery that is the bullpen carousel must work out, David Ross needs to demonstrate elite managerial skills, and a breakout season from a player like Ian Happ would do wonders.
Perhaps most important, though, is a stable rotation that maintains both health and effectiveness. Quintana's ability to put up career average marks in 2020 would go a long way toward that goal.