In Praise of Cal Quantrill, the Averagest Pitcher North of the Rio Grande

Michael Baumann

Michael Baumann

David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

We should know better by now than to doubt the Guardians. Every year it seems like they shed at least one important player, and every year (not literally every year, but most years) they scheme, finesse, and otherwise inveigle their way back to the playoffs. This year, Cleveland’s position players are playing great defense and striking out less than any lineup in the league. On the other side of the ball, Cleveland — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — has managed to cultivate depth by developing talented starters internally.

You know these pitchers: Cy Young winner Shane Bieber, All-Star closer Emmanuel Clase, Triston McKenzie, James Karinchak (who’s so dangerous umps check his hair for weapons like he’s Milady de Winter from The Three Musketeers). And Cal Quantrill.

During the month of August, when Cleveland asserted control over the AL Central for the first time, Quantrill made six starts, pitched at least six innings each time, and posted a total ERA of 2.13. Bieber and McKenzie get most of the credit for the Guardians’ run prevention success, and deservedly so. But in this age of inch-perfect 98-mph two-seamers and strikeout rates in the 30% range, Quantrill is a throwback: an effective pitch-to-contact innings-eater. That he belongs to a little-celebrated archetype of player does not diminish his value to a team that’s operated all year with little room for error.

The Guardians currently sit three games up in the AL Central, thanks to a deadline-straddling hot streak that finally allowed them to put some daylight between them and the Twins and White Sox. On the morning of July 26, the Guardians were 3.5 games down in the AL Central; a month later, they were four games up. Their current lead is by no means impregnable, not with four games left against Chicago and five against Minnesota, but it’s comfortable enough.

Quantrill didn’t unlock some new superpower during his hot August run. (Want to know how he went 4–0 with a 2.13 ERA? Start with his opponent BABIP of .175.) In fact, looking at his numbers, it’s hard to find anything remarkable at all. Of the 50 starting pitchers who have thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title, Quantrill ranks between 20th and 40th in, well, almost everything.

Cal Quantrill’s Ranking in Key Stats*

Stat Rank
BB% 23rd
Opp. Avg. 37th
ERA- 31st
FIP- 41st
GB/FB 27th
Soft contact % 24th
Hard contact % 28th
Fastball Velocity 23rd
O-Swing % 31st
Zone % 36th

*Out of 50 qualified starters

As for his arsenal, Quantrill throws five pitches, none of which is more than three runs either side of league-average by linear weights.

Near as I can tell, there are two remarkable things about Quantrill. The first I was unaware of until my colleague David Laurila brought it up in Slack: He is freakishly good at home. Both this year and for his career, his opponent wOBA is more than 30 points lower at home versus on the road, and he’s 12–0 all-time at Progressive Field. His career record at home, including his stint with San Diego, is 18–3, which is the best home record among active pitchers with at least 40 career starts. (Tony Gonsolin and Dakota Hudson are in the top five; do sinkerballers perform better at home?)

That sinker is the other remarkable thing about Quantrill. He’s sixth among qualified starters in sinker usage, throwing it a third of the time this year, and it has the third-most vertical break. And he uses it to get particularly pitch-to-contact-y results: He’s in the top five in total contact rate, as well as contact rate in and out of the zone, and 48th out of 50 in strikeout rate.

Now, a guy who throws a lot of sinkers and doesn’t get many strikeouts conjures up a certain image: mainly the Framber Valdez or Logan Webb archetype, guys who throw a sinker where trying to hit it hard is like trying to hit a gym sock full of pennies. You can do it, but it’s going straight into the ground and not moving very quickly when it does. Or you can look at Quantrill’s arsenal of five pitches, four of which he throws at least 10% of the time, with multiple fastballs, and envision a Max Fried type who gives up a lot of contact but most of it is harmless.

Not Quantrill. His groundball rate? Average. His soft-contact and hard-contact rates? Average.

Like a Toyota Camry or a Lodge Dutch oven, Quantrill is superficially unremarkable but highly dependable. Two starts ago, the Mariners beat him around for five hits and three runs in three innings. That was his shortest start since joining Cleveland’s rotation full-time last summer, and just the third time in a run of 43 starts dating back to last July that he failed to complete at least five innings.

I’m not sure how useful a pitcher like Quantrill is in the playoffs, when every run counts and the quality of competition goes through the roof. At the deadline, the Cardinals picked up two left-handed pitch-to-contact guys, Jordan Montgomery and José Quintana, for next to nothing. (I’d argue that both are better than Quantrill, Montgomery significantly so.) But during the regular season, a guy who can get through five or six innings reliably, who can send a lot of batted balls into the teeth of Cleveland’s excellent defense and take pressure off the bullpen, can be the difference between a playoff berth in a weak division and ending up like, well, the Twins.

I’m not sure we ever appropriately valued the innings-eater; if we did, we don’t value him now in this age where teams invent and dispose of new stars like running backs. But 350 pitchers have made at least one start in the big leagues this season; only 28 have thrown more innings than Quantrill. Winning teams don’t let you pitch that much unless you’re doing something right.


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