By: Brad Krause
When Milwaukee Brewers pitching prospect Zach Quintana needs a little pitching advice or some added motivation, he doesn’t have to turn too far. In fact, he can look right within the Brewers organization. “One of the pitchers I’ve always looked to, even when I was in high school, was Michael Blazek” said Quintana.
Blazek, who is five years older than Quintana, was acquired by the Brewers from St. Louis last September, as the player to be named later in a trade for John Axford.
“He’s from my high school” Quintana continued, “and when I was in eighth grade, he used to give me pitching lessons. We’re about the same size and watching him through the years, kind of turn in to a guy who just really lets it go, he throws hard now, so I watch him a lot.”
Listed at just 5’11”, the righty from Las Vegas, Nevada doesn’t see height as an issue when he takes the hill. “It’s always been a thing, since baseball’s been around, that the bigger guys, have been what they look for, but I think once you really get down to it, if you can pitch, you can pitch.
It doesn’t matter your height. You see most of the closers and some starters in the game now, they’re not very big guys, but they can pitch. They work with what they have. They’ve got good stuff, good command. Some throw really hard, some don’t, but I think if you can pitch, it doesn’t really matter.”
The Brewers seemed to agree when they selected Quintana in the third round of the 2012 MLB draft, signing him away from a scholarship to San Diego State University and the opportunity to play for the legendary Tony Gwynn.
A two-way player, Quintana was a slick-fielding infielder in high school, but he knew he wanted to be on the mound, making his decision to turn pro, and sign with the Brewers, a fairly simple one for him.
“If I had gone to college, I’d have been playing shortstop too, while also pitching some, and I knew I wanted to pitch”, said Quintana. “It’s every kids dream to get drafted and sign. I knew all along that this was what I wanted to do, so it was a pretty easy decision.”
After signing with Milwaukee, Quintana got his feet wet in the Arizona League in 2012, making 13 appearances, including four starts in his first pro season. The 19-year-old advanced to short-season Helena in the Pioneer League in 2013 and noticed significant differences.
“I thought it was a day and night difference” said Quintana. “Stadiums, bigger places to play. We played in front of a couple thousand people a night instead of not so many in Arizona.
It also kinda showed me, as the season went along, what worked for me, and I figured out my routine. You get back late from a road trip, what do I have to do to get ready for the next game, so it all factored in. I thought it was a big difference.”
One other difference, was the success of the Helena ballclub in 2013. They finished the regular season with a record of 43-33 and were the only Brewers farmclub to earn a spot in the postseason. The playoff run was a memorable experience for Quintana.
“That was pretty crazy. I mean high school playoffs, they’re fun when you’re there, but it’s nothing compared to what we experienced from the playoffs (in Helena).
Everybody’s giving it everything they’ve got, even at the end of the year. The crowds are louder. There’s a lot more on the line and to see guys kind of perform, better than they have, stepping up for the playoffs, was really cool to see for my teammates.
Everybody was nervous at first, but when we got it going, it was like, wow, we can do some big things. It was just a really, really cool experience. Something I’ll never forget. I’m definitely glad to be part of it.”
Quintana started 14 regular season games for Helena, going 4-4 with a 6.95 ERA. But more importantly, he received some valuable coaching and help in areas that could contribute to long-term success.
“The coaches and staff with the Brewers do a great job as far as giving me little tweaks here and there, not maybe looking for immediate results, but to help me down the road with arm health, or this tweak’s going to help me gain some leverage or something on the ball, down the road. So it’s kind of something you’ve got to stick with. Not really quick fixes.
There’s a lot of things that happen during the season. Ups and downs. So to have coaches there to give you some things to work on, what they see, it helped a lot. Especially because you’re on your own. The more you go out, you know yourself more and more as the years go on, so I thought this past year was a big eye-opener of what worked and what really didn’t work for me.
I’ve kind of taken that to the heart, kept all the video and just really worked on getting away from what didn’t work for me and focusing on what they told me that will help me be succesful in the future. I definitely took that to heart.”
One key area that Quintana is looking to improve is the overall command of his pitches. Working off a low-90’s fastball, he also throws a curveball and change-up. All three pitches have good movement with downward sink to them, so being able to command and control those pitches is vital to his success.
“For me it was just overall command of all my pitches. More fastball command and then learning how to control my body, with my mechanics.
That comes with years and years of pitching. Some guys don’t get it right away, and some do. But I’m just trying to focus on knowing where each part of my body is throughout my delivery and that helps with being able to repeat, and command.
That’s the big thing I was working on. Getting it down to where I don’t have to really think about what happened there, or what went wrong. If I throw a bad pitch, I want to get to the point where I know exactly what went wrong. I know exactly what to fix. It’s hard to get to that point, but once you get to it, I feel like it’s a really good key to being very consistent with all your pitches.
Getting ready for spring training, throwing a lot more, I’m just trying to work on fastball command and building off of that.”
A quick worker on the mound, Quintana also noted that in the past he may have worried too much about what the hitter was doing at the plate, rather than focusing on what he could do with the baseball in his hand.
“I’m still young, but before I learned everything I did in Helena, I used to be like, alright, what’s this guy thinking? What’s the hitter thinking? What do I throw here? Trying to figure out what he’s thinking. Then, towards the end of the season, I kind of just realized, it doesn’t matter what the hitter’s thinking, I’ve got to just go at him with what I have. If he hits it, give it to him. He hit my pitch, you know, he hit my best pitch.
I think worrying about what the hitter’s thinking, kind of hindered me a little bit in the beginning, first half of the year. Kind of made me think too much when I should just go out there with the best I have. Once I started doing that, it started helping a little more, especially mentally and I think that’s another thing I’m working on in the offseason is that part of the mental aspect, just focusing on what I have.
I’m going to come at you with everything I have, I don’t care what you’re thinking or what you’re looking for, or your approach, I’m just going to go at you with what I have and stick to my gameplan.”
Part of that gameplan for Quintana is pitching more to contact in order to allow himself to work deeper in to games.
“You want to pitch to contact, because the end result is you’re going to throw a lot more strikes. But you know there’s always different situations. Bases loaded you’re not trying to pitch to contact. You’re trying to get this guy out. Send him back to the dugout. In those scenarios, you’re not trying to throw to contact, but I think as a starter, you definitely want to throw to contact. That’s how you stay in longer, that’s how you keep your pitch count down.
(There’s) little things here and there that I’m trying to work on to eventually get everything overall pretty solid. But you definitely want to, and I’m going start, throwing more to contact, than to try to get everybody striking out. That’s another thing I’m working on.”
As he prepares for spring training, Quintana will be looking to take the next step on his climb towards Milwaukee, and continue to work on what he needs to do to get there.
“I’m just going to work as hard as possible, just like last year. Hope to move up, step up each year. I’m going to go with what I have and give it my best, but I feel like I’ve got a little better this offseason, and just like last year, got a little better each year. So I’m just hoping to go out and have a good spring training, and show the things that I’ve worked on, show my improvements and just go from there.”