After bolstering the top of their rotation with Justin Verlander, the Mets made an addition on the back-end, bringing in Jose Quintana on a 2-year, $26M deal. The 34-year-old lefty slides nicely into Taijuan Walker’s spot in the rotation, and he’ll be penciled in as the 3rd starter unless the Mets make another major addition.
Quintana is firmly into the “wily veteran” phase of his career at this point, and arguably has always pitched like a pitcher who earns that moniker. Early in his career, he beguiled hitters by suppressing hard contact for the White Sox, consistently posting ERAs in the low-to-mid 3’s despite lacking strikeout stuff. He changed a bit after a 2017 trade across town to the Cubs, striking out a lot more batters but watching his ERA settle in in the low 4’s instead of the low 3s. He then suffered an odd thumb injury while washing dishes in 2020, missed most of the season, and was absolutely awful in 2021. It seemed like it might be the end of the road.
Instead, the Pirates grabbed Quintana as a reclamation project and he posted his best season since 2017. His 2.93 ERA in 165.2 innings between Pittsburgh and St. Louis is likely a bit lucky, but he ran a 2.99 FIP that would be his best mark since 2014. Other metrics like DRA- were much less optimistic about his work, estimating that his ERA should’ve been nearly two runs higher than it actually was. Quintana has always been someone who somewhat defies his peripherals, but it seems safe to say he’s due for at least some regression from his excellent 2022 performance.
Digging into Quintana’s stuff, we find that the primary reason for his bounce back was a much more effective fastball. After building a career based largely on limiting hard contact, Quintana’s fastball was smashed for a .700 SLG in 2020 and a .598 mark in 2021. Yet in 2022, he got that mark back down to .353, the best the pitch has been since 2017. In parallel, Quintana increased the whiff percentage on the pitch significantly in 2020 and 2021, then managed to carry those gains into 2022. Now instead of a pitch that either limited hard contact or induced whiffs at an improved rate while getting smashed, Quintana had a primary offering that did both.
So what happened here? Quintana has dropped his vertical release point in recent years, but that hasn’t actually resulted in a noticeably flatter fastball (for more on this concept, check at this great article). His velocity didn’t change much, and the changes to his pitch mix were minor - 5% fewer 4-seam fastballs replaced with changeups and some curveballs. The movement profile changed subtly, as Quintana now throws a 4-seam with some of the least horizontal break in the league; however, it still lacks high-end vertical movement and probably isn’t enough of an outlier to be the sort of pitch that succeeds just by being unusual. All that’s left then is the location, and herein lies our answer. First, look where Quintana located his fastball in 2020 and 2021:
And here’s where he threw it in 2022:
Aha. Quintana seemingly realized - or perhaps was healthy enough to regain the requisite command - that throwing his fastball up in the zone made it more effective. All 4-seam fastballs, even those without high-end velocity, exceptional vertical movement, or particularly flat VAA are better up in the zone, just with a finer margin for error. Quintana leveraged this to turn his fastball from a glaring weakness into a strength, one good enough to rank as the 7th best 4-seam fastball in baseball per Fangraphs’ pitch-value metrics (16th best if you lower the innings limit to 100). Perhaps there’s something sustainable to Quintana’s 2022 performance after all.
We could continue down this rabbit hole, dissecting increasingly minute elements of Quintana’s arsenal as we attempt to divine what to expect from him in 2023, but that’s not particularly relevant given the actual price here. The Mets are not paying Quintana to throw 400 innings of sub-3 ERA baseball over the next two seasons, they’re paying for 300 innings of 4-4.5 ERA baseball. In an ideal world, you want a farm system robust enough to produce an arm like this every year or have the ability to extract this performance out of a cheap signing off the free agent scrap heap. As we alluded to in other posts, the Mets aren’t there yet, and recognizing that deficiency and paying to address the issue is smart. Moreover, compared to the massive contracts signed by similar arms like Taijuan Walker and Jameson Taillon - younger pitchers who maybe have more interesting pitch characteristics but who were also worse in 2022 - Quintana’s short, cheap deal to fill out the back of the rotation looks like an absolute steal.
This team needed starting pitching depth, and while it’d probably have been better for them just to spend the money on a higher-end option, a 4th-starter type to fill out the rotation is useful as well. (Note: the team is still in on Kodai Senga anyway.) There’s even potential for more here if you believe that Quintana’s performance was more sustainable than it appears on the surface. The Mets seemingly found the value pay and spent a third of the money other organizations were splashing around for similar players. This isn’t a move that will win a World Series or anything, but it was a necessary one made shrewdly, earning the Quintana signing a B+.