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.