The Pittsburgh Pirates had a lot of controversy surrounding their starting rotation this off-season. They declined to make A.J. Burnett a qualifying offer, believing him when he said that he would either return to Pittsburgh or retire. It appears they opted to go for an off-season plan that would have added James Loney at first base and Josh Johnson in the rotation for the same amount as the qualifying offer to Burnett. However, both players signed elsewhere.
The Pirates opted to sign Edinson Volquez, and eventually Burnett went on to sign a deal with the Philadelphia Phillies. The decision to sign Volquez, even before Burnett was off the market, sparked the controversy. The right-hander is coming off a season where he had a 5.71 ERA in 170.1 innings between the Padres and Dodgers. His xFIP was much lower, at 4.07, indicating that he might have been better than the overall results.
The gap between the ERA and xFIP for Volquez put him in a similar situation as Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett when both players were acquired. On the surface, people pointed to the ERA, with hope that the xFIP indicated a bounce back. Ray Searage and the Pirates’ pitching coaches were able to work their magic to not only get Burnett and Liriano to bounce back, but also to turn them into top of the rotation guys. The question was whether Searage could repeat that same success with Volquez.
“We know it’s a roll of the dice, and we know that when Liriano came in here he wasn’t expected to be very good,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said. “When A.J. came in here, he wasn’t expected to be very good. They both have been really good for us, and we’re looking to capture some of that same with Edinson.”
With two weeks remaining in Spring Training, that’s a question that hasn’t been answered with a “yes”. With Volquez struggling so far, the fear is that the answer will end up being “no” this time around, potentially giving the Pirates a hole at their fifth starter spot, which could force them to turn to their depth.
What the Pirates Saw in Volquez
Pirates’ manager Clint Hurdle has mentioned many times this Spring that he had Volquez on the 2008 All-Star team. That was when Volquez was at his best, with a 3.21 ERA in 196 innings during that season.
“I got to see him when he was in a very good spot,” Hurdle said. “We’ve continued to pull tape from that point forward. Just sitting down with him, showing him the video of when things are working well, when the fastball command is in play, when he’s able to work the ball both sides of the plate, and when the command’s been off and the pitches have been elevated — all of those things.”
What I’ve seen so far this Spring from Volquez has been poor fastball command, but a good changeup and a good curveball. The off-speed stuff is there, but without the fastball command, he’s not going to get the chance to be effective with those secondary offerings. The Pirates scouts were high on his pitches, including that off-speed stuff.
“Our scouts still saw quality stuff,” Huntington said, talking about what the team saw in Volquez. “They saw a couple of plus pitches, and in some cases overall three plus pitches. Two from each of our scouts, whether it’s the fastball-breaking ball, or the fastball-changeup. We see a guy that continues to get ground balls. We see a guy that continues to strike people out. Just too many walks. We felt like there were some mechanical adjustments that we could make with him, and again kind of following along the model that has been successful for us, turn him over to our coaches — whether it’s Ray Searage or Euclides Rojas or Jim Benedict — who have just done a great job with some of these guys in getting them back on track.”
The Willingness to Make an Adjustment
The biggest focus with Volquez this Spring has been the focus on making an adjustment to his delivery. The Pirates have him focusing on three key points:
1. Keeping his front side closed.
2. Keeping his hands in the middle of his body, getting him to break his hands on time at the start of his delivery, and keeping his head on line to the plate.
3. Staying tall on his back leg.
“He’s still working hard on the things we want him to focus on,” Hurdle said. “The consistency is the challenging part now. You see some nice sequences. The completeness of it isn’t taking place. He’s staying positive, working very hard, so we’re still very optimistic.”
Huntington offered the same thoughts on Volquez, and the part about the lack of consistency is true. Volquez has looked good at times, but has seen some major struggles at other times. Often, the difference can be seen during the same outing. But that’s not going to help the Pirates unless Volquez can learn some consistency quickly.
“It’s been a work in progress,” Huntington said. “We’ve seen some really good signs. The ability to locate a 94 MPH fastball down and away from a right-handed hitter. A sharp, biting breaking ball. A changeup with deception and fade at the bottom of the zone. We’ve also seen some opportunities where he’s not capitalized, and he’s left the ball up in the zone, and they’ve hit a few of his mistakes hard. And we haven’t played very good defense behind him in a few of his outings.”
If there’s one trend I’ve noticed in the Pirates’ system, it’s that players who are open to an adjustment, and willing to make a change, usually do a lot better than the players who refuse adjustments. The guys who ignore their struggles, and think everything will be fine if they keep the same approach are usually the guys who don’t bounce back. This doesn’t mean that everyone who is open to an adjustment will see good results from that adjustment. It does mean that Volquez is on the right track in making a change, especially when the change is being suggested by a group of coaches who have demonstrated success in making these adjustments in the past.
Volquez has already demonstrated the ability to make an adjustment in the past, specifically when he was traded to the Dodgers last season.
“When I got there, we went back to 2008 and 2009 and watched all of those videos, and we went from there with the adjustments,” Volquez said.
The big focus was keeping his front side closed, which is an adjustment the Pirates are also focused on. Volquez would open his front side, allowing the batter to see the ball earlier. Keeping his front side closed also keeps his delivery in line, allowing him more control.
The results with the Dodgers came in an extremely small sample size of 28 innings, but they were good. Volquez had a 4.18 ERA and a 3.27 xFIP. He increased his strikeout rate from 17.6% with the Padres to 22% with the Dodgers. He also cut down on his walk rate from 10.5% to 6.8%. His fastball velocity saw an increase from an average of 92.3 MPH to 93.1 MPH.
I wouldn’t say that you should expect Volquez to put up the numbers he saw while he was with the Dodgers. However, I do think it’s a good sign that his numbers had notable improvements after Rick Honeycutt started working with him on adjustments. I also think it’s a good sign that the Pirates are working on those same adjustments, while also working on a few more changes. In the last six or seven months, Volquez has been getting help from some very successful pitching coaches in Honeycutt, Searage, and Jim Benedict. He’s also willing to listen to these coaches, which is a point in his favor.
Can Volquez Make the Adjustment in Time?
Volquez listening to pitching coaches is a good sign. The fact that he’s working on adjustments to correct some of his control problems is also a good sign. But the reality is that Volquez has a limited amount of time to make these adjustments. He’s almost at a disadvantage compared to past success stories like Liriano and Burnett. Both players spent time on the sidelines with an injury, allowing them to focus on their mechanics, with less focus on the games. That’s not the case with Volquez.
“I don’t know that an injury is ever a good thing, but it did, it allowed us more time with Liriano, and even with A.J., it allowed us some more time,” Huntington said. “In Volquez, we’ve had to make the adjustments a little bit quicker, and with a more pressure packed environment to be able to go out and compete. Any time you’re trying to make an adjustment and compete, that’s a tough spot to be in.”
Volquez has been struggling, and it has become notable because everyone is there to see it. The struggles remind me a bit of Francisco Liriano last year, who had some similar issues early during his work. Those issues weren’t as notable, since they didn’t come in the spotlight of Spring Training.
When I first saw Liriano throw a game last year, he looked sharp in the first inning. During the second inning, he struggled with his command and control, and this was against minor league hitters during his first live game action. Scouts on hand noted the inconsistent performance, but praised the stuff when it was on.
From there, Liriano started his rehab work. His first start with Bradenton looked outstanding. The Pirates moved him up to Altoona for his second rehab start, and he was pounded for four earned runs in 2.2 innings, with a 4:3 K/BB ratio. Despite this, he moved to Indianapolis for three rehab starts. The first two were dominant, and the third saw him give up four runs on seven hits in five innings, but with a good 6:1 K/BB ratio. Liriano was called up to make his first start on May 11th.
What I saw from Liriano early in the season was inconsistency with his adjustments. However, that didn’t get much attention, since it didn’t happen under the Spring Training microscope with everyone watching. He continued his struggles at times throughout his rehab work, but then everything just clicked.
I don’t know if things will click for Volquez the way they did with Liriano. I do know that I’m seeing the same inconsistent pitching, where Volquez will look bad one inning, then look great in a different inning during the same outing. Volquez will make the Opening Day rotation, which means he will be pitching in the majors one month before Liriano made his debut. That gives him less time to make the necessary adjustments.
This will be the biggest test for Ray Searage and company. I’m willing to give Volquez a pass on his Spring Training results, because he’s clearly working on mechanical adjustments aimed at getting him better. That’s the same thing Liriano was doing last year. None of this guarantees that Volquez will have the same success, or be successful at all. But after the Pirates had success with Liriano, Burnett, and relievers like Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, and Jeanmar Gomez, they deserve some freedom to take a shot at repeating this approach, hoping to find another value reclamation project.
“We’re always going to have to take some chances that maybe the bigger markets don’t have to take because they have the luxury of paying for what a player’s done. Whereas we have to take a chance to put a position, and pay for what a player is going to do,” Huntington said. “It’s market size. Sometimes challenge becomes an opportunity to capitalize on some inefficiencies. The challenge becomes when you think you’ve got every reason in the world to think this is going to work, and it doesn’t, it becomes very easily second guessed, and that’s something we can’t shy away from.”