Which Edinson Volquez Will the Pirates Get Going Forward?


Clint Hurdle doesn’t like to use the phrase “reclamation project” when discussing players whose careers the Pirates have turned around in the past few years. He sees the men in his clubhouse as humans first, and players after that.

So, for him, to call a player a “reclamation project” as if he was a piece of furniture salvaged from a trash dump to be renovated and added to a living room just doesn’t make sense.

Rather, the more appropriate phrase in the clubhouse is a “bounce-back” candidate, a work that holds an implication of future success after a stretch of adversity. And many of the Pirates have bounced back.

The first high-profile bounce-backer was A.J. Burnett, who rebounded from rough seasons pitching in the American League to serve as the Pirates ace for the last two seasons before taking his talents to Philadelphia. Francisco Liriano followed Burnett to Pittsburgh a year later, and was named the National League’s Comeback Player of the Year.

And don’t forget about players like Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon and Charlie Morton either.

But when it comes to the latest “bounce-back” candidate, Edinson Volquez might be the first to truly warrant the title of reclamation project if Burnett, Liriano or others did not.

Edinson Volquez is the latest "bounce-back" candidate brought into the organization.

Edinson Volquez is the latest “bounce-back” candidate brought into the organization.

Rock Bottom

Among all qualified starters a season ago, Volquez’s 5.71 earned run average was the worst, as he allowed more runs than any other pitcher in the majors. He was designated for assignment by San Diego in August before the Los Angeles Dodgers picked him up for the rest of the season.

Volquez’s DFA from the Padres may have finally meant hitting rock bottom for the 30-year-old right-hander, after his career went downhill following an injury-riddled 2009 season that culminated in Volquez undergoing Tommy John surgery Aug. 3, 2009, to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) and flexor mass in his pitching arm.

Just one year earlier, Volquez seemed to have finally delivered on the potential that made him a high-profile signing as an 18-year-old out of the Dominican Republic in 2001.

In  2008, he went 17-6 in 2008 with a 3.21 ERA and 206 strikeouts in 196 innings pitched. With top pitching prospect Homer Bailey debuting in 2007 and Johnny Cueto coming up in 2008, the Reds appeared to have a trio of pitchers that would serve as cornerstones in the rotation for year to come.

After his operation, Volquez began the next season on the 60-day disabled list, and was up-and-down between Cincinnati and Triple-A Louisville during the 2010 and 2011 seasons. After the 2011 season, the Reds flipped Volquez and three prospects for Mat Latos.

He made 32 starts for San Diego in 2012, tying his career-high, but walked 105 batters and finished with a 4.14 ERA in one of baseball’s friendliest parks to pitchers.

But, once one hits bottom there is nowhere to go but up. On Dec. 13, 2013, Volquez became the latest hoping to join the ranks of those whose careers found salvation within the Pirates’ organization.

Volquez's best season came in 2008, when he won 17 games and struck out 206 batters. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Volquez’s best season came in 2008, when he won 17 games and struck out 206 batters. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Mutual Interest

Before he signed his one-year, $5 million deal with the Pirates in the winter, Volquez consulted Liriano, his fellow Dominican countryman, for advice on where he should pitch next. Liriano told him to come to Pittsburgh based on the coaching staff alone.

“He told me ‘we have great coaches over there,’” Volquez said. “They can help you to get better, to get back on track and be able to pitch.”

Liriano’s recommendation was all the convincing Volquez needed, and soon after he told his agent Lenny Strelitz that he wanted to sign with the Pirates. Fortunately for Volquez, the Pirates were interested in him as well.

While general manager Neal Huntington waited for A.J. Burnett to make a decision on if he would pitch in Pittsburgh in 2014, let alone play baseball at all, he needed to make contingency plans for the major-league rotation in case Burnett decided not to return (as he didn’t).

In Volquez, Huntington said his scouts “saw things they liked” and the front office made moves.

“They saw a guy that flashes three above-average, major-league pitches,” Huntington said. “Our analysts liked some things he did metrically and we felt like he was a good opportunity for us to add a guy that had some upside that maybe was a little bit undervalued.”

An offseason conversation with Francisco Liriano convinced Volquez to come to Pittsburgh. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

An offseason conversation with Francisco Liriano convinced Volquez to come to Pittsburgh. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Mechanics And Mentality

For pitching coach Ray Searage to begin rebuilding Volquez, he looked back to when he was at his best.

“We looked at some video and ‘08, ‘09 was where he pitched his best so what we tried to do is get him back to that position in ‘08 and ‘09,” Searage said. “Not to the exact same thing but it’s really, really good that’s he’s close to it.”

The biggest mechanical change Searage employed was to ensure that Volquez stayed on his back leg longer as he noticed Volquez was flying out of his delivery too early and negatively impacting his command.

In addition, Volquez is doing a better job of focusing on the targets laid down by the catcher’s glove. Searage emphasized that Volquez keep his head still during his delivery, giving him a steady target to concentrate on.

“His head’s being still and he works around his head,” Searage said. “It just allows him to get a good feel and get a good ‘Kodak moment’ if you want to say, on where he wants to throw the ball.”

As a result, Volquez has been able to command his fastball better and is throwing strikes at a career-high rate. In tandem with his improved mechanics, Searage’s tinkerings have allowed Volquez to not think about how he is throwing his pitch but to instead just throw them.

“He’s got good downhill plane to [the fastball] and he can move the ball inside and out,” Searage said. “His delivery is more sound than it has been in past years. So now he feels more confident and his focus is on executing the pitch as opposed to how he’s doing it.”

With his focus clearer, Volquez has also been able to focus on improving his approach to hitters. Namely, working more efficiently.

“Being aggressive with first-pitch strikes, getting ahead, staying ahead and then putting them away,” Searage said. “We have a three-pitch mentality where we try to go after hitters that way and Edinson never had that before and he really took to it extremely well.”

Next to the lessons and tips on his approach and mechanics, Volquez has also benefitted personally from his relationship with Searage which helps further drive home the teachings Searage wants to instill in Volquez and the rest of his pitching staff.

“The way he treats me is like a dad,” Volquez said. “He’s talking about baseball but at the same time he gives a lot of love, [he wants us] to be confident, to do what you want to do. We’ve got a good idea about what we’re trying to do right now and be in the same place.”

Pitching coach Ray Searage has helped Volquez to think only about executing his pitches. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Pitching coach Ray Searage has helped Volquez to think only about executing his pitches. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Results

Volquez’s first four starts of the season made it seem like the Pirates had certainly found their next bounce-back guy. Including two shutout innings of relief on April 3, Volquez owned a 1-1 record with a 1.92 ERA through four starts. By Game Score’s definition, Volquez nearly pitched three gems (Game Score of 65 or better) and gave his team a great chance to win each game even though the Pirates went 2-2 in those four games.

Date

Innings Pitched

Runs

Walks

Strikeouts

Game Score

Strike %

April 6

5.2

1

1

4

62

65.4

April 12

6.1

2

2

4

61

67.7

April 17

7

2

1

3

55

68.8

April 22

7

2

1

3

61

71.0

Catcher Russell Martin says Volquez has had success early by being aggressive, something supported by his high percentage of strikes thrown. As Searage said, that allows him to get ahead with his fastball and work his other pitches in off that.

“He’s been able to keep the fastball down and to use the changeup,” Martin said. “Sprinkle the changeup in there in the mix with all of his pitches because he’s good when he’s using all of his pitches.”

“For the most part, he’s been aggressive and when he’s been good he’s been keeping the ball down and using that changeup off that same plane.”

Season

Strike%

BB%

K%

2008

61.2%

11.1%

24.6%

2009

57.8%

14.7%

21.6%

2010

59.5%

12.7%

24.4%

2011

60.3%

13.3%

21.3%

2012

59.8%

13.1%

21.7%

2013

60.9%

9.9%

18.3%

2014

66.1%

5.7%

13.3%

Because of his aggressiveness, Volquez has also been able to throw strikes at the highest rate of his career and lowered his walk rate to its lowest point in since 2008, his first full season in the majors. While his strikeout rate is at a career-low, the trade-off has been beneficial.

But since his strong start, Volquez has run into some misfortune in his last two starts that’s resulted in his ERA doubling and then some.

Date

IP

R

BB

K

GSc

Strike %

April 27

5.2

6

1

2

32

63.9

May 4

5

6

3

3

29

55.4

Volquez took losing decisions in each of those starts, and his ERA now sits at 4.19. But Hurdle doesn’t buy that the numbers tell the whole story in the two six-run outings.

“I think you need to look at the six runs he gave up and how he gave them up,” Hurdle said after Volquez’s start Sunday. “It was a three-run home run [April 27] again on a pitch [after] a borderline pitch that could’ve been a called third strike, then he had to make another pitch.”

Volquez started strong, with a 1.93 ERA in his first four starts, but allowed six runs in each of his last two outings. (Photo by: David Hague)

Volquez started strong, with a 1.93 ERA in his first four starts, but allowed six runs in each of his last two outings. (Photo by: David Hague)

Volquez himself said he was off rhythm in his last start against Toronto on Sunday, when he allowed a two-run home run and a grand slam. The grand slam came after Volquez issued two of his three walks on the day, then a base runner reached base on a high-chopper in the infield.

Against Colby Rasmus (who hit .385 in Pittsburgh last weekend) with the bases loaded, Volquez dealt a curveball over the heart of the plate that Rasmus hammered out of the park.

The common denominator for Volquez beyond allowing six runs in his last two starts is decreased percentages of strikes thrown. As a result, he isn’t attacking the zone and able to do the things Martin detailed he needs to do in order to be successful.

As for his issues with rhythm, Volquez noted he had a week off between his start in St. Louis and against Toronto. He said he is fine mechanically and just wants to get back to pitching every fifth day, while keeping it as simple as he did at the beginning of the season.

“I just want to go backward, like [throw] more strikes than balls,” Volquez said. “It happens when you’re off your rhythm.”

If his two recent starts prove to be the exception to the norm set by his first four, then Volquez looks like the next success story when it comes to the Pirates and their “bounce-back” candidates.

The Pirates have faith in his ability, from Huntington and the front office on down as the right-hander has gotten ahead of hitters, attacked the strike zone and kept the ball down “for the most part.”

“He’s pitching with confidence,” Huntington said. “We’re looking forward to him continuing to do the things that he’s done that have allowed him to be successful.”

And once he gets his rhythm, Volquez hopes to see results closer to those from his first four starts than his last two. Either way, he’s happy that he is a Pirate at this stage of his career.

“I think I’m in the right spot right now,” Volquez said.

Nate Barnes

Author: Nate Barnes

Nate covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects, and is an English Writing major at the University of Pittsburgh. Nate has covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report, and covered Pitt Men's Basketball, Duquesne Men's Basketball, and Pitt Baseball beats prior to this summer. You can find Nate on Twitter @NateBarnes_ where he'll keep you updated on each and every time Clint Barmes breaks up a no-hit bid with one-out in the third inning of ballgames.

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  • lonleylibertarian

    He occupies the spot in the rotation that Cumpton earned – and earned in Spring Training…

    • Y2JGQ2

      True statement lonley

    • Arik Florimonte

      Nobody’s spring training stats should earn or lose them anything. Most of what goes on in ST is behind the scenes and if a player is focused on results they are likely focused on the wrong thing.

      • lonleylibertarian

        BS – if that was the case Lambo would have started the season at 1st base.

        • Arik Florimonte

          Lambo lost the job because his swing went to hell. His stats went to hell also. If he had lousy stats but was seeing the ball well and making good contact, he would have made the team.

          Volquez got his job because of what the coaches believed he could do, based on their observations of good stretches during games and progress in the things he was working on.

          • lonleylibertarian

            Do you get the Kool Aid direct from the Pirates and do you get a discount for spewing this sort of stuff?

            • Arik Florimonte

              The Kool Aid is free

        • Arik Florimonte

          On further thought, I think you’re right about Lambo. He was assumed to be the guy but he was so terrible he lost the job. I think that in the case of unproven players, ST stats do factor in to the decision.I don’t think they should, but they do.

          In the case of Cumpton vs. Volquez, I don’t think there was ever a question that Volquez would be #5, and I don’t think there should have been. The positive things they saw that led them to sign him for $5M were confirmed in workouts and games. If you believe he’s your man going into ST, a few ST starts shouldn’t change your mind. Not only is ST small sample size, but it’s often against AA and AAA guys or guys who are “working on things”.

          • lonleylibertarian

            But look at how they “gave” him his chance…
            For the first half of spring training he would get 2-3 at bats at most – either start and get pulled early or come in late as a replacement. IF you were serious about giving him a shot you would have started him every game against RHP and left him in for the game – gotten him 60+ at bats – think he had 42 or so going into the last week in ST – this team had no intention of giving Lambo a fair shot.

            I does not matter – Cards win 2 of 3 – or sweep – Polanco should have been RF for the weekend – for many very good reasons.

            Cumpton should be starting tomorrow in place of Volquez.

            I am tired of caring when the FO clearly has no desire to convince the fans they are serious about winning – they want to run a business and make lots of money. Good Luck to them on that – they will get nothing more from me until things change.

  • leadoff

    Hurdle was right, the stats don’t tell the story. The high chopper was actually a play that Mercer could not get the ball out of his glove, a big out it would have been. Also in that game the umpire was horrific against Pirates not so much the Jays, squeezed the plate early on, in fact I believe Hurdle got tossed in that one for protesting the balls and strikes, seems the umpire was not calling it both ways. In another loss that Volquez gave up six runs in, Walker botched an easy inning ending double play that would have prevented a 3 run home run. Between umpires and the Pirates playing bad defense it is hard to tell much about Volquez, one other item, all the runners he left on base scored after he left the game against the Jays, Pirate relief pitchers did a very poor job of shutting down rallies. If Hurdle ever calls on Morris with runners in scoring position he should be shown the way to his office early.

    • Y2JGQ2

      we’ve been playing bad defense with ALL our starting pitchers, and relievers- can’t single out Volquez here for pity. If you don’t walk the batters, those homers would have been less meaningful