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Inbox: How did Quintana turn it around?

Beat reporter Jordan Bastian answers questions from fans
@MLBastian
August 26, 2019

It feels like Jose Quintana has been the Cubs' most reliable starter lately. What has he been doing to help him finally look like the pitcher I've been waiting to see? -- Bill L., Orland Park, Ill. You know, I'm happy you asked. It's funny how things work out sometimes.

It feels like Jose Quintana has been the Cubs' most reliable starter lately. What has he been doing to help him finally look like the pitcher I've been waiting to see?
-- Bill L., Orland Park, Ill.

You know, I'm happy you asked. It's funny how things work out sometimes.

On Saturday, Cubs manager Joe Maddon gave a nice quote pregame about Quintana's recent success, and that led to some in-game research with the idea of writing that day's main story about the start. Then, the Nationals chased the lefty after four innings and all the stats jotted down in my notebook were saved for a rainy day.

Well, it's raining here in Chicago today, so let's dig into it. First, here was Maddon's assessment of what Quintana has been doing for the past two months or so:

"Utilizing all his pitches. That's it. And from that, confidence develops. Now, you've got a guy that is not just out there trying to fit that fastball in all these different quadrants of the strike zone. He's now dumping that curveball in there. The changeup is a pertinent pitch. And that makes that fastball even better. So, command of his curveball and the willingness to throw the curveball behind in the count matters. When you get behind and they know it's just going to be a fastball, they still win that mental moment. So, I think he's become more wide open and he understands the importance of not just, again, pitching with one pitch."

There's a couple of things to unpack there. Let's start with the utilization of his pitches.

Back on June 29 against the Reds, Quintana featured his curveball more than any other offering and spun six shutout innings. You can draw a line in the lefty's 2019 game log -- that is the day he demoted his sinker to his third pitch. Dating back to June 29, Quintana has thrown 19.4 percent sinkers. He had a 30.8 percent sinker rate prior to June 29.

Over that same 10-start stretch, Quintana has increased the use of his four-seamer (41 percent vs. 33 percent before June 29) and ticked up his curveball usage (28.8 percent vs. 25.5 percent before June 29). His changeup use has stayed relatively the same. In those 10 starts, Quintana has gone 7-1 with a 3.38 ERA, 60 strikeouts and 10 walks in 58 2/3 innings.

The other part of Maddon's quote specifically deals with approach when a batter is ahead in the count (or in "fastball counts" as you hear players, coaches and managers say). Before June 29, Quintana threw his sinker 41.2 percent of the time in batter-ahead counts. That has plummeted to 26.3 percent in his past 10 starts. At the same time, he's upped his four-seam, curve and changeup use in those situations.

Do you think the Cubs will try to re-sign Cole Hamels this offseason or do you see them maybe going for Gerrit Cole or someone else?
-- M.D., Franklin Springs, Ga.

I think targeting Cole (Gerrit) makes more sense than re-signing Cole (Hamels). First, though, we really need to see how the rest of 2019 shakes out. Picking up Hamels' $20 million option for '19 made a ton of sense. At the time, Chicago wasn't sure what to expect from Yu Darvish, given that he was coming off nearly an entire season lost to injury. Beyond that, a one-year, $20 million deal for a pitcher of Hamels' caliber is tough to top via free agency.

What I think will be more fascinating to follow is whether Nicholas Castellanos' strong showing down the stretch with the Cubs convinces the club to pursue signing him to a multiyear contract. Chicago needs to explore ways to tweak the offense in the name of consistency over the winter. Addressing the bullpen will also be an important offseason task.

There will be plenty of time to wade into those waters of conversation in the coming months.

Do we still believe in Albert Almora Jr.'s upside? Or do we think that his ceiling is now as a fourth outfielder? I know he is a high-character guy with a great work ethic, but his hit tool, while he shows flashes of being quality, he has yet to put together.
-- James R., Rohnert Park, Calif.

Based on the Cubs' recent decision to send Almora down to Triple-A for regular at-bats, it's pretty clear the team agrees that it needs to get more out of him offensively. His playing time took a hit once Castellanos arrived via trade, Ian Happ came up from the Minors and Jason Heyward moved to center. Essentially, Almora did become a fourth outfielder.

Maddon envisioned Almora as a weapon against lefty pitching this year, and the center fielder ran into reverse splits (.532 OPS vs. lefties and .737 OPS vs. righties). If the offense is not as expected or hoped, the Cubs need to know that the defense is worth it. Based on some metrics (-2 Defensive Runs Saved and -2.7 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR)/150), Almora also took a step backward in that area this year.

The upside is still there, sure. Almora is still just 25 years old. But his production has to be at a certain level to fit within the roster puzzle. It wasn't fitting lately, but expect the center fielder to return as part of the Cubs' September callups.

It seems like Kyle Schwarber hits almost all his home runs when nobody is on base -- solo shots. Any truth to this? And that leads me to think his average with RISP may not be so good. What do you think? Thanks! Go Cubs!
-- Steve L., Chesterton, Ind.

Schwarber hit a two-run homer on Sunday, but your hunch is correct. Of his 30 homers on the season, 19 were solo shots. That's 63.3 percent, only slightly above the overall MLB rate (58.7 percent solo homers).

To answer your other question, Schwarber is currently batting .207 with a .766 OPS with runners in scoring position. Last year, Schwarber had a -64 Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) and .249 OPS in high-leverage situations. This season, those have climbed to 74 and .719, respectively. Still below average, but definitely an improvement over 2018.

How is Nico Hoerner progressing? Any chance he gets called up in September?
-- Brock B., Mesa, Ariz.

Through 200 plate appearances at Double-A since returning from a left wrist fracture, Hoerner, the Cubs' No. 1 prospect, according to MLB Pipeline, has hit .265 with 13 extra-base hits and a .677 OPS. Through 22 games in August, he's turned in a .302/.362/.360 slash line. The slugging isn't there like it was in '18, but the wrist injury probably serves as the explanation. And no, I wouldn't expect him to come up in September with the Cubs.

Would there be any chance that the Cubs would bring up Brailyn Marquez when rosters expand? I know that he has only recently been promoted to High A, but 100 mph from the left side is effective at the Major League level.
-- Neil G., Nashotah, Wis.

This is another one that looks like a no as a September callup. The Cubs' No. 4 prospect is not on the 40-man roster and, as you noted, still only in Class A Advanced. That would be an extremely surprising addition. The Cubs are very happy with his development this season and Marquez will be intriguing to monitor as he continues to climb up the organization ladder in 2020.

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.