Heading into the 2019 season, it felt like the Chicago Cubs were on the losing end of the trade that brought Jose Quintana over from the South Side in 2017.
After all, the two prospects the Chicago Cubs had traded for Quintana, outfielder Eloy Jimenez and pitcher Dylan Cease, appeared to be well on their way to the bigs, with Jimenez making his Major League debut on Opening Day this year and inked a long-term extension to boot.
Quintana, meanwhile, endured an up-and-down 2018 season that saw him post career-worsts in walks and home runs allowed. He had his moments, including a dominant run over the Milwaukee Brewers that was unmatched by anyone else in the starting rotation. But mostly, he succumbed to a lack of consistency.
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However, in arguably the most pivotal year of his career, Quintana has been at his very best for the Cubs this season.
There were signs the Cubs would be getting a more determined version of Quintana in 2019 since camp broke back in February. The soft-spoken and reserved Colombian native was more vocal and visible, readily discussing the team’s prospects and his own approach to the offseason.
One of the most notable things to come out of Spring Training was Quintana’s attention to detail with respect to his mechanics. He and pitching coach Tommy Hottovy noticed the left-hander tended to struggle when his right foot was pointed skyward as he lifted his right leg during his delivery (subscription required).
Quintana’s changeup had never been a plus pitch in his career, but he lost confidence in it early in 2018, throwing it at a career-low rate of just 6.8 percent. Yet the awareness of that slight alteration to his motion would allow the southpaw to throw all of the pitches in his arsenal with more confidence.
Much like Jon Lester, Quintana’s success stems from his ability to locate the fastball and mix in his off-speed, so making the necessary adjustments to his mechanics to throw any pitch in any count was a vital distinction.
In nine starts, Quintana has a 3.30 ERA with a career-high 130 ERA+, and his strikeout rate is up while his walks have been cut by nearly a full free pass per nine innings.
He is showing more confidence in his changeup while also mixing in a sinking fastball to go along with the four-seamer. But the most important weapon Quintana has had in keeping hitters off-balance this season has been his unpredictability.
In Tuesday night’s win over the Philadelphia Phillies, he threw numerous 2-0 breaking balls for strikes and commanded all areas of the zone. Hitters simply have a hard time getting in a groove against “Q” when he is comfortable with all of his pitches, particularly because he can come back and paint the black with the fastball.
Quintana’s success with the sinker has helped induce a higher chase rate, and his ground ball rate is over 50 percent, according to FanGraphs.
With Quintana rounding into form, the Cubs’ starting rotation really might be the most complete group in baseball. And with their offense continuing to score runs, that is bad news for the rest of the league.