The sinkerballer has had a good run. Maybe it’s something.
Cal Quantrill is on quite a nice run.
Since he became a full-time starter on June 15, the right-hander has appeared in 12 games and posted a 3.13 ERA over those 64 innings. He doesn’t pitch particularly deep, only once getting into the seventh inning and quite a few times not making it past the fourth, but when he’s on the mound he’s found ways to be effective. He’s allowed 53 hits in that stretch including just five homers, and while he’s only struck out 48, he’s also only walked 21. Old school types might praise his grit, his ability to “find a way”, but at the end of the day, he’s been effective. That’s not to say it’s time to start believing in Quantrill as a top-end-of-the-rotation type of pitcher ready to stack hardware — not yet anyway — but there’s certainly a lot to like about how he’s growing.
The good is easy to see. He’s still got an above-average fastball/sinker at 95 mph, and since he’s become a starter he’s become much more versatile in his approach. Before June 15 he was regularly in the 50-60% range in his sinker use, mainly because relievers lean on what they trust most. He’s been a sinkerballer his whole career, so he leaned on it.
Since then though, he’s made adjustments to keep hitters off his feature pitch:
The result of this is he’s shown more of an ability to stay in games as he’s lasted at least 5.1 innings in each start, and we’ve seen a slight uptick in his strikeout rate. For the season Quantrill is striking out 18.3% of hitters, but from July 1 on he’s at least up a bit to 19.2%. It’s not huge, but it’s not nothing either. In mixing his pitches — and becoming more comfortable with his secondary and tertiary pitches — he’s having to become more of a pitcher, and finding success in that.
The trouble comes when we talk about the role of the sinkerballer in the modern game. I don’t think pitchers ever really “pitch to contact”, not that much anyway. It seems dangerous, and honestly silly these days. At the same time, Dallas Keuchel does exist, and did win a Cy Young in 2015 with this approach. Kyle Gibson had one of the better first-half runs we saw this year. Neither of these guys even approach a 25% strikeout rate (Keuchel at 14.3%, Gibson a bit better at 19.9%, both well below even the league average 22%), and yet both are at the very least valued in their rotation.
Today’s version of Keuchel benefits from being in a lineup that scores about a hundred runs a game but still keeps runs off the board and goes six or seven with just a few runs earned, and Gibson was one of the most valued trade assets until a few starts nuked his numbers. Even then he’s been effective with Philadelphia after he was traded. Both are victims of the ebbs and flows of BABIP, but both are also valuable pitchers in the rawest sense.
Quantrill is of that mold.
It’s nice to get a ton of strikeouts and keep the ball out of play. It limits errors and uncertainty. Quantrill doesn’t do that, but it’s not a bad thing, or at least not a death knell for his career. He’s demonstrated a knack for keeping the sting out of the ball, at least as much as one can. He’s in the 76th percentile in average exit velocity, 74th percentile in barrel rate against, and 64th in hard-hit rate. These three marks all trend to balls not hit quite right, and easier plays for the defense. These numbers are also very close to Gibson’s numbers this year (62nd, 95th, and 59th, respectively) though Gibson is evidently elite at not allowing barrelled balls. I’m not overly happy about drawing positive comparisons between Quantrill and Gibson, but part of that is because I’ve seen Gibson a ton as he was stuck in what was once a pitcher development hell in Minnesota. And Gibson never even winked at the mid-90’s with his fastball, while still having a sterling season this year.
Quantrill has also done this every year of his career. Since he debuted in 2019 he’s never been worse than the 69th percentile in any of these marks, and that was his rookie year. He’s gotten better across the board, so it could be a talent showing itself.
This is all good news, sort of. Gibson has certainly found something that works this year, even with the preternaturally suppressed BABIP. He doesn’t have the sheer arm talent that Quantrill does, to say nothing of the organizational structure to help cultivate that at this point in his career. That said, Quantrill is sure to feel the pain of a few poorly placed ground balls at some point in the future. Still, he’s held the A’s, Astros, White Sox, Rays, and a resurgent Tigers offense to ten earned runs in five starts since moving to the rotation full-time — and four of those came in one start against Detroit — and as time has worn on he’s found ways to pile up more K’s. In his last four starts, he’s averaged over a strikeout an inning, which isn’t huge — but again, not nothing.
Maybe a pitcher like Quantrill does have a long-term place in the modern MLB, if he does it with the right approach, anyway. It can’t be all or nothing, but having grounders and softly hit batted balls as a core of his makeup isn’t some kind of black mark of misery. The list of sub-20% strikeout rate starters this year runs the gamut from Gibson to Zack Grienke to Wade Miley to Keuchel. All are prone to a stinker of a game, but their results range from league average to flirting with ace-dom.
We’re still watching to see where Quantrill falls on that range, but he’s been doing all the right things, and showing the right kind of growth — pitch mix, change in approach throughout the game, more strikeouts, more length —- to make us feel at least a little good about what’s going on. He’s going to lay an egg eventually, but the key with a pitcher like him is to make sure those mistakes and unfortunate accidents are mitigated, and he can find the path away from the big ugly inning.
And hey, at least he lets the ball get put in play. Manfred must love him, right?
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