When the Pirates inked veteran starter Jose Quintana to a one-year, $2MM deal last November, it generated little fanfare. After a couple of rough seasons, Quintana was no longer viewed as a reliable starting option and expectations on the 33-year-old were minimal. However, the Pirates’ modest bet on Quintana paid off handsomely, as the southpaw will go down as one of the better free agent signings of the 2021-22 offseason.
Quintana turned in 165 2/3 innings of 2.93 ERA ball across 32 starts, 20 of those came with the Pirates before he was traded to the division rival Cardinals at the trade deadline. Only 16 pitchers had a better fWAR than Quintana’s 4.0 total, and Quintana will certainly get some votes as NL Comeback Player of the Year.
Quintana has been a workhorse for much of his career, beginning with four straight seasons of 200+ innings with the White Sox from 2013-16. Much more than just an innings-eater, Quintana posted a 3.35 ERA over that four-season stretch, highlighted by a 2016 season that saw him make the All-Star team and finish tenth in AL Cy Young Award voting. The White Sox weren’t in contention during this period, and with a rebuild in progress, Quintana became one of the most sought-after arms on the market. The Sox held onto the left-hander until July 2017, before dealing Quintana to the crosstown Cubs for four prospects — including Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez.
It’s a trade that still generates some hard feelings in Wrigleyville, as Jimenez and Cease have blossomed into stars for the White Sox and Quintana’s production took a step back as a Cub. He posted a 4.24 ERA over his 439 2/3 innings with the Cubs from 2017-20, and thumb surgery and a lat injury limited him to just 10 innings in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, marking the first significant injury absences of Quintana’s career.
Hitting free agency in the 2020-21 offseason, the Angels signed Quintana to a one-year, $8MM deal, hoping that he could bounce back and help solidify the rotation. Unfortunately, Quintana pitched his way out of their rotation altogether with an unsightly 8.23 ERA in ten starts. He fared slightly better in their bullpen, but the Angels cut ties with the lefty in August 2021, and Quintana didn’t have much success in five relief appearances with the Giants after San Francisco claimed him off waivers.
So, where did it go wrong? For one, the 2021 version of Quintana was a statistical outlier from the rest of his career, as both his strikeout rate (28.6%) and walk rate (11.8%) were far above his career averages. Chasing the extra missed bats seemed to make Quintana a bit more of a predictable pitcher, especially since he also cut back on the use of his slider and started throwing a (mostly ineffective) changeup more often. As a result, batters were teeing off on Quintana’s offering, resulting in a career-worst home run rate.
To be fair, Quintana was also hampered by some bad luck in 2021, as his 3.94 SIERA took a far more favorable view of his performance than his 6.43 ERA. While Quintana didn’t help himself by allowing more homers and a ton of hard contact, he also didn’t get much assistance from the Angels’ mediocre defense, as evidenced by his huge .378 BABIP. (Angels pitchers had a collective .305 BABIP in 2021, the third-highest total in all of baseball.)
With a better Pirates defense behind him, Quintana got back on track this season. Quintana stuck with more or less the same mix of pitchers, though he has cut back on his fastball usage and leaned more heavily on his off-speed stuff. The lower fastball usage turned Quintana’s four-seamer into one of the most effective pitches thrown by any hurler in 2022, with a -17 Run Value according to Statcast.
Quintana’s strikeout (20.2%) and walk (6.9%) rates also returned to around his career norms, and his problems with the long ball almost entirely disappeared — his 5.3% homer rate was the lowest of his career, and his eight total home runs allowed were the lowest of any qualified pitcher in baseball. After finishing in only the sixth percentile of all pitchers in hard-contact percentage in 2021, Quintana zoomed back above average in 2022, as his 35.8% mark put him in the 68th percentile.
This production led to plenty of interest at the trade deadline, and St. Louis ended up landing both Quintana and reliever Chris Stratton in exchange for right-hander Johan Oviedo and minor league third baseman Malcom Nunez. It was a nice return for the Pirates for a rental player, and the Cardinals were surely satisfied with their end of the deal. Quintana posted a 2.01 ERA over his 62 2/3 innings after the trade, helping the Cards capture the NL Central. The southpaw then added 5 1/3 shutout innings in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series, though a ninth-inning bullpen meltdown cost St. Louis the victory.
Given this success, Quintana looks like a solid bet to receive a multi-year contract in free agency this winter, though plenty of factors will weigh into the size of that deal. He turns 34 in January, and teams won’t forget about his 2020-21 struggles just because he turned things around this year. As MLBTR’s Anthony Franco noted in his preview of the Cardinals’ offseason, Quintana is an option to return to St. Louis, but the Cardinals may opt to pursue cheaper pitching options in favor of a bigger splash elsewhere on the roster. Still, Quintana’s return to form makes him an attractive target for any number of teams who need quality and durability in the rotation.