When the Pittsburgh Pirates signed Edinson Volquez for $5 M last year, there were no predictions that he would be pitching in the NL Wild Card Game this October. Instead, the predictions were more along the lines of “When will the Pirates replace Volquez in the rotation?” and “There is no way they return to the playoffs.” And yet, here we are on October 1st, and Edinson Volquez is pitching in the biggest game of the year.

It’s been a long transition for the right-hander. Out of 81 qualified pitchers last year, he had the worst ERA at 5.71. The next worst was almost half a run better. The advanced metrics showed Volquez should have been better, but even that put him in the bottom third of the majors, and only had him as a league average starter at best.

Volquez is the newest case in what is turning out to be a very successful trend with the Pirates finding huge values on the starting pitching market. As usual, the change started early with his work with Ray Searage and Jim Benedict.

“The time he spent at mini camp was huge,” Clint Hurdle said on Volquez’s transformation. “I think he got an early feel of who he would be working with. With Benedict and Searage. What their game plan was. They gave him some immediate opportunity to feedback as well. The way he was embraced by the team. Sometimes things come together for all the right reasons.”

Hurdle talked about how Volquez is a visual learner, and how the right-hander is really good when you can show him something in a visual way. Searage also noted this, giving an example of an improvement Volquez made throughout the year.

“I told him a long time ago, ‘you’ve got problems in pitches 61-75. You know what they’re hitting off you?’ He goes ‘I didn’t know that.’ Ever since that day I told him, his numbers have gone down, down, down.”

But the process is not just as simple as finding a struggling player, telling him what to fix, and watching him put up a 3.04 ERA in 192.2 innings. It also takes a certain attitude from the player, and a willingness to change. Volquez had that, especially after being cut by the San Diego Padres late last season.

“We’re looking for guys with what we think are accelerated skill-sets, that have the ability to learn still. The comprehension pieces there. And are hungry,” Clint Hurdle said about finding reclamation projects. “And I think that is what we look for as much as anything. You can find ages, and swing paths, and zones, K zones, and velocities. But if you can dig into that hunger aspect, find guys who are truly at a point in time when the gears are probably going to work a little bit better than they have any other time. We feel confident that we can help them.”

It doesn’t work with every player that is brought in. Often that has to do with the player being unwilling to make a specific change to their game, especially a drastic one. Volquez was willing to make such a drastic change, going from a strikeout pitcher to a guy who pitches to contact. He saw how the Pirates made his friend, Francisco Liriano, better, and he signed with the Pirates to do the same thing.

“I used to be a strikeout guys, and I decided to go more contact right now,” Volquez said. “I wanted to stay in the game longer. Before I got in a lot of trouble when I tried to strike out everybody and I started walking people.”

A big change for Volquez was fixing his delivery to the plate. He focused on keeping his hands center, which made it easier for him to stay over the rubber. As Ray Searage explained, when his hands went back, his body went forward, throwing his delivery out of sync. The change has helped. Volquez had a career 4.8 BB/8 in his career, prior to this season. Not one of those seasons featured a BB/9 under 4.0. This year he has put up a 3.3 BB/9, at the expense of a 6.5 K/9, which is almost two strikeouts lower than his career numbers heading into the year.

From an FIP standpoint, if you’re striking out fewer batters and relying on your defense more, then you’re not going to get high ratings. That’s why Volquez has a 4.20 xFIP, which is over a run lower than his ERA. If you want to argue that some of his success can be attributed to his defense, park factors, or Russell Martin, then you’d be correct. But there’s more to Volquez that shows he’s not just a guy who has to rely on a good catcher and good defense.

Aside from the overall numbers, one of the biggest eye-openers for Volquez this year was the fact that he was routinely hitting 98 MPH. With that kind of velocity, you usually expect the 3.04 ERA, and not the 4.20 xFIP. A big focus for Volquez this year was getting back to being a power pitcher, but also being more of a complete pitcher. Ray Searage talked about the difference, noting Volquez’s time in Cincinnati.

“I saw a guy that threw nothing but changeups,” Searage said. “You’ve got a 94-95 MPH fastball and you’re going soft all the time, and I’m like ‘what is this guy doing?’ Now he’s become a complete pitcher. Now he uses his fastball and his changeup in good sequences. The curveball has matured greatly. Everything in his evolution of becoming a major league pitcher has been nothing but forward.”

Volquez used the changeup 31.9% of the time in 2008, and was in the 20-25% range for most of his career prior to this season. This time around he is at 18.7%. As for being a more complete pitcher, he threw the changeup less this year compared to last year, but saw better results. Last year he allowed a .345 wOBA and a 136 wRC+ on the pitch. This year he dropped down to .285 and 90.

His 2008 changeup had a .279 wOBA and a 76 wRC+, so his changeup this year hasn’t shown a big difference compared to previous seasons. However, the fastball has been a career best this year. He has a .265 wOBA and a 72 wRC+ on the pitch. That’s the first time in his career that he dropped below .337 and 112 (not counting the short-seasons in 2005-2007). If you remove the 2008 season, which produced both of his career bests, then the improvement is even better. His best fastball production prior to this year, not counting 2008, was a .362 wOBA and a 130 wRC+. The curveball is also seeing some of the best numbers of Volquez’s career, which means all three of his offerings are producing at career bests this year.

But how does the fastball compare to the rest of the league? Using a different metric, FanGraphs rates Volquez with the 16th best fastball out of 88 qualified pitchers this year. So not only is this the best result of his career, but it’s also one of the best results in the majors. If you want more praise on Volquez, perhaps none can be higher than from one of the game’s best hitters.

 

“He’s not a comfortable at-bat,” Andrew McCutchen said, when talking about Volquez for the Wild Card Game. “You don’t know what you’re going to get when you’ve got that arm coming at you. His pitches are really good. He’s going to help keep us in the ballgame.”

If you look at the ERA, Volquez has been great. If you look at the xFIP, he’s probably not projected to continue this pace. But the quality of his pitches tell a different story. They suggest that there might be another level that Volquez can reach. I asked Searage whether that’s the case.

“I’m prejudice,” Searage offered up with a smile as a disclaimer. “He doesn’t know how good he can be right now. I think as he continues to go, and go through this journey of being a major league pitcher, and getting it later than sooner, I think he can be anything he wants to be.”

Right now, the Pirates just need Volquez to be better than his advanced metrics for one more game, allowing them to get through the NL Wild Card Game. If that happens, then the $5 M investment in Volquez might just be the biggest value of all the Pirates’ reclamation projects so far.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Volquez is the definition of a high risk pitcher if you define high risk as a high variability of outcomes, as the finance folks define high risk securities as those having a high standard devieation of expected returns. Here are Volquez’s Earned Run Outcome totals for 2014:

    Runs

    • Ah! Hit wrong key accidentily:
      Runs No. of games
      0 – 7
      1 – 9
      2 – 7
      3 – 4
      4 – 0
      5 – 2
      6 – 2
      7 – 0
      8 – 1

      So if you think of 0,1 or 2 earned runs as a great start; 3 earned runs as a meh! start; and 4 or more earned runs as a lousy start then percentage wise we should expect:

      Great Start: 72 %
      Meh Start: 12%
      Lousy Start: 16%

      If Volquez has a great start Bucs win.

  2. If he wins tonite the mantra will be “just one more game before his inevitable regression” If they lose tonite base off a poor performance by EV, then people will say “I told you so”.

  3. I think the reason Edinson Volquez is better, or at least seems better, than his peripherals is because the Edinson Volquez taking the mound tonight is not the pitcher that an entire season of statistics averages out to be.

    There were times throughout this season that nobody reading this would bat an eye at claiming Volquez was a 4+ ERA pitcher. But Volquez has been constantly learning, changing, and adapting. The quote by Ray Searage at the end of this article says it all.

  4. While I think xFIP is a nifty tool for evaluations, its not without its limitations. I think the math used in this type of evaluation will become a lot more complicated in the years to come.If I may rant a little, my complaints about xFIP are as follows:

    1. It treats all balls in play as a homogeneous entity. They’re not. Line drives have a stupidly high BABIP (over .700), flyballs have the lowest batting average, but second highest SLG, and ground balls have the second best BABIP, but lowest SLG (and double plays should count in there somewhere…) Also, it’s formulated in a way that suggests that pitchers have no control, not only over fielding balls in play, but over what kind of batted balls are in play. The fact the Pirates seek out ground ball pitchers (and the fact that ground ball pitchers exist) flies in the face of FIP/xFIP. This is the most notable flaw in using the stat when evaluating Pirates pitching, who’s strategy has a pretty proven track record. As far as Volquez is concerned, he has gone from a 22.8 LD % / 47.6 GB % / 29.6 FB % in 2013 to a 16.8% / 50.4% / 32.9%. Honestly, I think the drop in line drives is a bigger factor for him this year than the increase in ground balls, although they are probably related anyway.

    2. The home run constant is lacking, because again, it does not account for the kind of balls in play. As a rule of thumb, extreme ground ball pitchers will predictably outperform this constant, as its very very hard to get a home run out of a ground ball. It really should figure a way to factor individuals pitchers GB/FB/LD ratios in the formula. A league constant HR/FB rate multiplied by a pitchers GB rate would make more sense. Incidentally, this would actually make Volquez’s number go up this year.

    3. This is a completely personal opinion, but I’m not completely sold on the accuracy of the K/W part of the xFIP formula: 3(BB+HBP)-.2K). It suggests that a pitcher with a 10:5 K/W ratio per nine is a better pitcher than a guy with a 6:3 K/W, despite the same 2:1 ratio. Meaning xFIP does not simply exclude field dependent pitching results, but actually suggests field independent pitching results are outright better, assuming a pitcher can maintain at least a 1.5:1 K:W ratio, which is practically bottom of the barrel in the Majors. The idea is right, but I do wonder about the specific math. As Volquez saw both his walk and k rates go down this year, this works against him.

    Anyway, overall, the only thing that I see “under the hood” that Volquez has stepped up on is pushing down the line drive rate, ticking up the ground ball rate, and slightly improving his K:W ratio (mostly by reducing walks.) Opponent BABIP would be affected by cutting line drives, but not enough to explain all the 30 point BABIP drop vs. his career numbers. He has a HR/FB rate this year that is about 10% below the league average (average is generally about 10%, Volquez is at 9.1%), which I do think has a bit to do with being lucky.

    In “short”, I think xFIP fails to capture all the things that have resulted in Volquez’s improved season, however, factoring in those things still doesn’t completely explain it either, meaning “luck” is still at play.

  5. Pitching to more contact isn’t what made Edinson’s FIP high. Pitching to more contact while still posting an above average walk rate is what made Edinson’s FIP high.

  6. Speaking of good catcher. I suppose this is a little out of scope with this article. . Would anyone consider hank conger as a solid potential replacement for martin? Angels value ianetta.. conger has excellent receiving skills.. maybe trade pedro for conger?

  7. In Atlanta, his four seam fastball and change up were very effective and generated a lot of swings and misses. If they want strikeouts tonight, they lean on those pitches rather than his curveball, which hangs up in the zone at inopportune moments.

  8. There are no stats that are fullproof and most of them take a lot of data to produce at best averages, anyone that saw him throw in ST could see the stuff he has, he just needed someone to enter his life that he would listen to, much like Bautista in Toronto. A lot of young players are so talented that they think they know it all, but failure produces humility.

  9. the whole idea behind FIP, xFIP, etc is that it takes into account only K, BB, and HR (i think). This is because usually, once the bat hits the ball, what happens next is usually out of the pitcher’s control (except for HR i guess). Strong vs weak contact is supposedly out of the pitchers’ control.

    But I wonder if the Dan Fox geniuses have found a way to more-often ensure weak contact. And i wonder if something about Volquez epitomizes whatever that secret is and allows him to actually be better than xFIP says he is.

    Somehow finding a way how to beat advanced metrics (or at least the common public ones) would be awesome and could be their next baseball inefficiency to exploit.

    • I think there is something to this. I also think that, in a game of adjustments and counter-adjustments, it is still an uphill battle to consistently beat the advanced metrics, at least with the same tool set and approach. Eddie has benefitted from the park, the defense and Martin’s framing – these factors may or may not be in place in 2015 (but thankfully, they will be tonight). He has also benefitted from a low line drive rate and a career-high out-of-zone contact rate. The first of these has been shown to have little carry-over year-to-year, and the second is subject to the league adjusting back.

      What I like about this article is it shows the Pirates’ interest in on the ability – and hunger – of their “projects” to learn. It pays dividends when the pitcher implements the mechanics and approach – Year 1. Presumably, it also pays dividends in subsequent seasons when the league counter-punches to that approach, and adjustments or refinements are needed to stay a step ahead.

    • I think xfip is a good tool. Just not the only tool in thr toolbox.. if a ball us put in play it assumes the same result over time.. I think though that the avg number of bases would have to be lower for groundballs.. plus a groundball would produce more double plays.. so if a pitcher has a higher gb% and an above avg defense then I would venture to say that xfips should consistently over estimate the era.. just a hunch on my part though

      • I wonder also if this is so, the buccos should have a competitive advantage for an extended period of time.. it’s not just identify buy low pitchers.. but the buccos are bought into a system with all the shifts and are finding pitchers that buy into our system. Few teams have a singular system like the buccos.

    • “But I wonder if the Dan Fox geniuses have found a way to more-often ensure weak contact.”

      If you remember, this is basically how everyone was trying to convince themselves that Jeff Locke wasn’t due for regression last year. Some pitchers can in fact call inducing weak contact a skill, but it takes a much, much bigger sample to prove it.

      • do you remember if Locke actually had been inducing weak contact?

        Weak contact charts have become a “thing” i’ve seen on twitter starting this year and not last year.

        I wonder if people were just convincing themselves that Locke was giving up bad contact but he wasn’t actually.

        But yeah. Unless they’re REALLY SURE that they have found some way to beat FIP, I’d much rather them use the 2 yrs, 15 million that it could take to sign Volquez to sign someone who is less experimental.

        But for tonight… i don’t really care if he gives up 2 runs over 6 innings (based on his ERA) or 3 runs over 6 innings (based on his FIP) because Cole or Liriano or Cumpton could have all done the same thing in a 1 game sample.

        I need it to be 8 o clock.

    • FIP/xFIP have limitations, the big improvement is that they have fewer limitations than ERA. FIP and xFIP both assume league average BABIP and strand rate, with xFIP assuming fly balls leave the park at league average rate. These are good assumption because much of deviation from league average is due to sequencing and luck.

      However there are certain pitcher that are better contact controllers than others, knuckleballers are one class, and certain pitcher that control runners well, on average LHP should be better than RHP, (Burnett is a example of not holding runner well) So FIP/xFIP might under rate certain pitchers. This article suggest that while Volquez doesn’t belong to a particular class he has controlled contact well, and may be under rated by FIP.

      http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/why-starting-edinson-volquez-isnt-a-bad-idea/

      Though it is important to note that there is luck tied up in Volquez’s ERA, his BABIP is 30 point lower with men on base than bases empty. Trevor Cahill is an example of the effect in the opposite direction.

      I don’t think there is a huge inefficiency to mine here, teams all have access to Hit/Fx or Trackman data that provides better
      information on quality of contact than public batted ball classifications. I agree with what Brooks says below, it isn’t really about finding a better stat, but implementing a system to leverage undervalued pitchers.

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