The Pirates signed Edinson Volquez as a reclamation project, and it was easy enough to explain. A season ago, Volquez posted a 5.71 ERA, which is terrible. But he also posted a 4.24 FIP and a 4.07 xFIP, and on that basis alone, one could’ve argued that Volquez still had a place in the league. His pitches had remained the same as ever. The results didn’t follow, but the Pirates were willing to take a chance, just as they’d taken chances on other seemingly damaged pitchers in the recent past. Some got no better, but some were repaired.
Stop now and take a look at things. Between 2008-2013, out of pitchers who threw at least 500 innings, Volquez put up the second-worst walk rate and the second-worst strike rate. Now, out of qualified pitchers in 2014, Volquez is putting up a top-20 walk rate and a top-20 strike rate. Used to be, Volquez would throw about six of every ten pitches for strikes. So far this month, he’s thrown about seven of every ten pitches for strikes. There’s tweaking Edinson Volquez, and there’s making him a whole new guy. What might be a reasonable explanation for this?
Let me just re-state this, for the record: in 2014, Edinson Volquez has been a strike-thrower. He’s issued four walks, and one of those was intentional, meaning he’s unintentionally walked three guys out of 81 guys. Of all the unlikely pitchers to become strike-throwers, Volquez would’ve been at or near the top of the list, and though it’s still incredibly early, it’s not insane to conclude that Ray Searage might be having an effect, here. That’s what the Pirates were hoping for, and that’s what the Pirates have observed through 21 innings.
What’s been fixed? Interestingly, Volquez’s first-pitch strike rate is better, but it’s hardly outstanding. It’s up a few percentage points. And his zone rate isn’t far above his career average. And it’s still a bit below the league average. The pitch mix has changed a little — Volquez has been throwing some extra curveballs — but, again, nothing eye-popping. It would appear a driving factor here is that batters have swung at almost half of Volquez’s pitches, where his career rate is about 42%. And it looks like there’s an explanation for this.
Here’s a map of Volquez’s pitches from 2008-2013. It’s split, simply, into swings and non-swings. (Image updated to include box, explained below. The box is not the strike zone.)
You know what there’s a lot of in there? Pretty wild pitches. Which makes sense, given that Volquez has been a pretty wild pitcher. Let’s make a little box, with four edges. The lower edge will be the ground at the front plane of the plate. The higher edge will be 3.5 feet off the ground at the front plane of the plate. The left edge will be a foot from the center of the plate. The right edge will also be a foot from the center of the plate. Pitches outside of that box are mostly wasted pitches — very, very rarely do those pitches draw a swing. Over the six-year window, Volquez threw 31% of his pitches outside of that box.
Now here’s a map of Volquez’s pitches from 2014.
Same box as above. Now, Volquez has thrown 20% of his pitches outside of that box. The difference, at this point, between 20% and 31% of Volquez’s pitches is 30 pitches. Essentially, while Volquez’s zone rate isn’t way up, he’s thrown a greater rate of quality balls, as opposed to wasted balls. Good things happen if you can eliminate the pitches that only do you harm.
How about pitches at least a foot and a half from the center of the plate? Before, over the six years, 8% of Volquez’s pitches were that wild. In 2014, that’s down to 3%. Same conclusion. Not necessarily more strikes, but better balls, leading to more actual strikes as a consequence.
Volquez has just been less wild, and therefore more able to pitch around the zone on a consistent basis. What causes that is improved mechanical consistency. Granted, the cause of every pitcher improvement is improved mechanical consistency, but it would appear that Volquez is better able to replicate his delivery from one pitch to the next. Searage has talked about that, as general a point as it is. If the difference between the Volquezes is about one out of every nine or ten pitches, it isn’t hard to imagine how Volquez’s mechanics might’ve gotten out of whack something like a tenth of the time. Now that Volquez has tightened things up, hitters are swinging more aggressively, and Volquez is getting into fewer deep counts.
And the Pirates don’t want that many deep counts. Used to be, Volquez averaged about 4 pitches per plate appearance. Right now he’s at 3.4, which is far lower than average. His career best is a hair below 3.9. The Pirates will take the reduction in strikeouts if it comes with a dramatic reduction in walks, and at the moment Volquez’s xFIP- is 96. He isn’t an ace again, if he ever was one, but Volquez is showing signs of being useful as a starting pitcher, and he could conceivably continue to make strides as the season wears on. Searage has declared this a process, and the process didn’t end at the conclusion of camp.
Of course, Volquez still makes mistakes. Of course, Volquez will never be a command starting pitcher. Here is a brief selection of breaking balls Volquez didn’t put in good spots Thursday, and he got away with them:
There could’ve been homers. On a different day, there would’ve been at least one homer, and those are hittable and mashable pitches. Some old Volquez walks will just turn into new Volquez hits, and so it’s not like Volquez is a No. 1 at a discount. At least, there aren’t signs of that yet. Ray Searage isn’t a magician.
Unless you consider it magic to be able to turn Edinson Volquez into a reliable thrower of strikes. Which, now that I think about it, yeah. Maybe he is a magician. He just isn’t literally God, but that might be setting too high a bar.
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