Game 114, White Sox at Mariners
Hisashi Iwakuma vs. Jose Quintana, 7:10pm
Today’s game is one of the great underrated pitching match-ups in the American League. Two of the top 30-or so pitchers in baseball, and yet both tend to get overlooked for a number of reasons. Both have underwhelming fastballs, with Iwakuma’s dipping below 90mph this year and Quintana’s velocity gains stalling out between 91-92. Neither are what you’d call strikeout pitchers, although both get over 21% Ks this year. The bigger issue is that neither’s the best pitcher on his own team. Felix’s combination of stuff and durability mean you can reliably write him in as a top-5 Cy Young contender every year, and he’s running away with it this year. Chris Sale’s combination of effectiveness and oddness (his odd delivery accentuates his thin frame, and it must look to batters that the ball’s being delivered by some sort of giant insect – all exoskeletal arms and legs stuffed improbably in a baseball uniform) have made him a top-10 pitcher as well. Iwakuma got hurt after failing to sign with the A’s; the M’s picked him up for pocket change before the 2012 season. Quintana was a minor league free agent, after the last of several times he’d been cut by New York clubs. He was in his 20s and hadn’t pitched above AA; the Sox picked him up for pocket change that contained more lint and old receipts than legal tender.
The elite – the Kershaws and Sales and King Felixes – do everything well. They strike out batters, and they don’t walk many. They limit hard contact, and they strand runners. They face line-ups stacked with platoon-advantaged hitters, and they swat them away regardless. Quintana and Iwakuma can’t quite do THAT, but it’s impressive how many of these attributes they possess. Quintana, a lefty, has run remarkably even platoon splits since coming to the big leagues in May of 2012. Iwakuma’s gone one better and actually run reverse splits – more because he’s dominant against lefties than because he struggles against righties. Quintana’s move into the upper tier of pitchers (he was around the middle of Dave’s great Top 50 Trade Values series at Fangraphs, which makes sense given his great contract, but also makes no sense when you remember he was cut from the Trenton Thunder not that long ago) has been the result of a run of preternatural HR-suppression. To the cynics, that a journeyman -a MINOR league journeyman – has had a solid 2/3 of a season getting lucky on his HR/FB explains the dissonance of seeing him nestled with the games best pitchers on a Fangraphs leaderboard. To the optimists, it’s a sign that Quintana’s command – not just his control – has developed to the point where he can limit his own mistakes. This is, of course, the one facet of Iwakuma’s game that’s still developing. He’s essentially stopped walking anyone, and his combination of grounders, whiffs and excellence with men on has meant that a bit of a HR problem is more than manageable.
Part of Quintana’s HR-suppressing ability/luck is the result of getting ahead of hitters. He’s well above average in throwing first-pitch strikes, and he’s pitched ahead in the count more too. Both marks are much higher in 2014 than they were in 2012, which makes it all the more interesting – at least to me – that he’s throwing fewer and fewer pitches in the strikezone. This was always a key part of Iwakuma’s success too – get ahead, and then batters have to protect, and that makes the splitter look even more un-takeable than it otherwise would. With two strikes, Quintana shifts his approach from pounding the bottom of the zone and tries to get batters to go for high four-seam fastballs. This probably makes his curve – thrown low - look better too.* It also helps explain why he can get 21% Ks with below-average contact rates. After a called-strike or a couple of fouls, he’s able to go to breaking stuff and either freeze hitters with FBs or get them to chase the curve or change.
This gets at an issue I’ve touched on before, and the Westside Guy brought up in the comments to last night’s game thread. How much of the credit for Quintana (or Noesi or Carroll, and the other not-that-great, but holy crap, how are they in a big league rotation?) should go to legendary pitching coach Don Cooper? Cooper’s fond of Quintana, and there are some similarities to other guys he’s worked with. He’s done wonders at turning talented-but-wild arms like Sale and Matt Thornton into strike-throwers, but that wasn’t Quintana’s problem. Whatever Cooper does, it’s been effective now for many years. He’s got more work to do with the rebuilding White Sox, and the fact that their highest paid pitcher – John Danks – is circling the drain, on his third year with a FIP over 5, sandwiched around major arm surgery. Now, it’s reclamation projects like Noesi and Carroll, and working with talented but extremely raw talents like the Brazilian Andre Rienzo, who’s back in the minors after face planting this year.
1: Jackson, CF
2: Ackley, LF
3: Cano, 2B
4: Morales, DH
5: Seager, 3B
6: Denorfia, RF
7: Morrison, 1B
8: Zunino, C
9: Taylor, SS
Forrest Snow looks to continue his great late-season run as he takes the hill in Tacoma against the Fresno Grizzlies. Brazilian prospect Luiz Gohara’s face-planted in the NWL the way Rienzo has in the bigs, but he’s still a major talent. He starts tonight against Spokane. Edwin Diaz starts in Clinton against Burlington; the Puerto Rican is coming off a complete-game shutout of the Bees back on the 3rd.
* Since I brought it up regarding Alex Wood, I thought I’d mention that Quintana does the same thing with his curve – it goes to *one* spot, no matter the handedness of the batter. That obviously hasn’t hurt its effectiveness, but I still think it’s funny.