Prior to the 2016 season, prevailing sentiment around baseball was that José Quintana might be the game’s hidden gem. Buried on the perennially middling Chicago White Sox behind an undeniable ace in Chris Sale, Quintana has been consistently good, if also extremely easy to overlook. His repertoire isn’t sexy, mostly a mix of low 90s four-seam fastball, a curve with little depth and a hard changeup that doesn’t generate many swings and misses. A strong 2016 campaign, though actually a slightly down one for Quintana, and a push of enthusiasm has made the lefty slightly better known. While his peripheries have always skewed upwards, he has always had the feel of a Mike Mussina or Andy Pettitte-like number two starter. Certainly nothing to sneeze at, but now that the White Sox have gotten a king’s ransom for Sale and Adam Eaton, Quintana’s name has been in trade talks looking for the same value, leading more fans to learn his name and most to wonder if he’s worth the money.
Over the past three seasons, Quintana has been worth over a 4.5 WAR and in 2013 he was worth 3.5. While pitcher WAR can be finicky, those are extremely impressive numbers. So impressive in fact that they place him in the top 15 in all of baseball from 2014-2016. Going by FIP, Quintana sported a lower number than ERA in both 2014 and 2015, with his ERA being about square with his fielding independent number last season (though slightly higher). In short, the Sox defense is doing him no favors. He’s also been good for 200-plus innings in each of the last four seasons while striking out a respectable 160 or more every time. By those measures, Quintana is worth every penny.
On the flip side, Quintana’s K/BB was a rather pedestrian 7.83 last season and has never risen above 8.00 in his career. His 2.16 BB/9 was good though not great, putting him in the lower half of the top 20 amongst qualified starters last year. Part of why advanced metrics love Quintana is because traditional stats basically hate him. He’s never won more than 13 games in a season; he’s only finished better than .500 in wins twice – last season at 13-12 and in 2013 at 9-7. Neither are specifically pretty numbers. He’s also never finished with less than a 3.20 ERA, which happened last season (not surprisingly the season when he arrived on most people’s radars). Prior to last season, his best ERA was a 3.32 in the offensively anemic 2014 season.
It’s easy to see why Quintana looks like a guy who has been grinding out strong under the radar starts year after year even if by popular measures he is hidden. With a little bit of research, Quintana seems like he may well be worth the price, given that he will at the very least eat innings and be consistent. But here’s the problem: the price is really, really steep. White Sox GM Rick Hahn has been incredible at spinning deals this offseason, but as a result he’s raised his own bar by landing farm system-shifting prospects like Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and more.
As the guy behind the ace, Quintana is a stud. But as a stud who you just traded two or three top prospects for, he’s the kind of player who may never come close to expectations. Of course, this shouldn’t matter if the quality starts are still rolling in, but it will to fans if Quintana once again has a September where he surrenders more than four earned runs three times in six starts. Some guys are specifically valuable because they are solid and nobody expects anything more from them. The moment we expect more, we risk turning the underrated player into an overrated underrated player.
Now to digress for a moment.
In 1999, American Beauty went from a relatively obscure socio-political satire by a first time writer and director to juggernaut Academy Awards winner. About as soon as the recipients walked off the awards stage, a backlash started against American Beauty that continues to this day. The film is seen as at best overrated and at worst dangerously misogynistic. With the deluge of bloggers now tracking this sort of thing, we’ve come to see this same trajectory for virtually every Oscar winner. Most winners, in my opinion, becoming “underrated overrated” films. This leads back to Quintana. A pitcher who was for years unquestionably underrated. Sometimes that’s exactly where a player, like a movie, needs to live for them to attain their accurate value in both the hearts and minds of fans. Now that Quintana is a household name, he could become the next American Beauty of baseball. We’ve all seen this before…
One of a few scenarios may happen to Quintana over the next year but exactly none of them will let him fall back into the obscurity that fit both his style and accomplishments:
A) He might get traded to a contender for a huge return, thus keeping everything he does under scrutiny.
B) He might remain the ace of the White Sox, thus keeping everything he does under scrutiny.
C) He will remain dangled as trade bait for as long as possible, thus keeping everything he does under scrutiny.
José Quintana is a good pitcher, there’s no denying that. Even if he’s the worst version of himself, he would probably make the Pirates, the Yankees, the Astros or most other rotations better. He’s not, however, the kind of pitcher who looks great as the ace of a staff, primarily because exactly what makes Quintana great is what makes an ace different. And teams absolutely need guys like Quintana. You might argue they need them even more than they need an ace. But they won’t be paying for a guy like Quintana when they trade for Quintana. Quintana is a number two that Rick Hahn needs to sell as a number one, at the disservice of his true value.