There has been an ongoing joke in my fantasy baseball league for a few years about Jose Quintana and his consistent mediocrity. The joke is basically to make fun of whoever owns him, because most of the owners in the league think he sucks. I take offense to such criticism though, as I’ve chosen to have Quintana on my team a couple of times. I certainly would not have drafted him if I thought he sucked. I think he is, well, average.
Let me get one thing straight, there is nothing quality about the quality start metric (at least 6IP, no more than 3 ER). Yes, someone, somewhere thinks a 4.50 ERA is quality. Up until this season, Quintana was glad someone created a favorable statistic for such mediocrity. In 2015, he actually had more quality starts than David Price, Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, and Matt Harvey — all who posted ERAs almost a full run lower than Quintana’s.
Like I said, that was until this year. In 76.2 innings thus far in 2016, Quintana has a 2.58 ERA (well below his 3.38 career average), a 2.35 FIP (well below 3.34 career average), and 71 strikeouts. His first-half performance has even led some writers to predict he will start in the All-Star game. Why such an improvement this year? Well, lets take a look at his performance in greater detail.
It is often the case with starting pitchers that you can predict year-to-year performance fluctuations by comparing ERA and FIP. I’ve talked a little about it before, but FIP is essentially ERA comprised of factors that pitchers can control. One of the biggest determinants of ERA is hits allowed, which modern baseball thinkers have actually found is beyond the control of the pitcher. It does seem a bit odd — a pitcher has control over where in the strike-zone he throws the ball, and thus controls whether they walk a batter or strike them out. But, once the ball is put in play, the pitcher no longer controls the outcome. For decades, the batting average on balls in play (BABIP) has remained steady at around .300. To give a bit of context — in 1920 the league-average BABIP was .297, and in 2013 the league-average BABIP was .297. The assumption that better pitchers allow fewer batted balls to become hits is not true. Tim Wakefield has a lower career BABIP (.274) than Pedro Martinez (.279).
Back to predicting year-to-year performance changes using FIP. In 2011, A.J. Burnett finished his final year as a Yankee with a 5.15 ERA in 190 innings. But his xFIP (uses league-average HR rates, because HR/fly-ball rates fluctuate over time) was 3.86, which shows he was unlucky due to factors (i.e. allowing more hits and homeruns) that were beyond his control. The Pittsburgh Pirates realized that 2011 was an outlier year for Burnett, and traded for him soon after. The following season Burnett had a 3.51 ERA and 3.40 xFIP.
So can we look at Quintana’s FIP prior to 2016 to explain his improvement this season? You can see in the following table that, in his first two seasons with the White Sox, Quintana was actually getting a bit lucky. His FIP was higher than his ERA and he benefitted from a BABIP below .300. In the last two seasons, Quintana has been a bit un-lucky with BABIP figures above .300 and FIPs below ERAs.
Since his debut in 2012, Quintana has been able to consistently increase his strikeout rate and decrease his walks rate — which can partially explain his improvement in 2016. You’ll also see that his HR/FB ratios (the percentage of fly balls that turn into homeruns) have drastically decreased over his career. Take a look at this. Quintana’s 2016 HR/FB rate is 2.6% (leads MLB), and is well below the league average rate of 10%. Much of Quintana’s improvement this season may be a result of fewer fly balls turning into homeruns. You can see it in his xFIP (3.65), which basically shows what Quintana’s ERA would be if he allowed home runs at a league average rate (10%).
Like BABIP, HR/FB rates vary from season-to-season and are primarily beyond the control of the pitcher. So, some may argue than Quintana is bound to regress because his 2.6% HR/FB rate isn’t sustainable. His ERA next season will probably be in 3.5-4.0 range because he will likely give up more homeruns. However, I would argue that this won’t be the case. While 2.6% probably isn’t completely sustainable, I believe Quintana will continue to keep his HR/FB ratio at an above-average clip. Why? Because his home stadium (U.S. Cellular Field) is a pitcher’s park. It has a larger outfield than most stadiums, and thus it is harder for the batter to hit a homerun. I believe Quintana is making a conscious effort to induce more fly-balls because it gives him a greater chance of recording an out. While both FIP and xFIP are valuable indicators for certain situations, I would use FIP more to evaluate Quintana because he pitches in a stadium where homeruns turn into outs.
Even though Quintana’s having a career year so far in 2016, his FIP (2.35) suggests he’s been unlucky and could be even better in the future. If I had to summarize the reasoning behind Quintana’s improvement into one sentence it would be: he strikes more batters out, walks them less, and realized that allowing fly-balls in his home ballpark isn’t a bad thing. That All-Star game start doesn’t seem too far fetched.