Making a Pitcher Out of Edinson Volquez

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.)

volquez20082013_2

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.

volquez2014_2

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:

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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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Dave
Guest
Dave
2 years 5 months ago

Interesting article, but for the love of god, please label your axes!

Glorpo
Member
Glorpo
2 years 5 months ago

This is somewhat off-topic, but is the “Worst of the Best” feature going to be resurrected at some point this year? That used to be the highlight of my Friday afternoon, as it marked the end of the work week to me due to landing right around 5 eastern.

Jaack
Guest
Jaack
2 years 5 months ago

If he continues to improve, maybe he’ll even get some more Rookie of the Year votes.

rt
Guest
rt
2 years 5 months ago

“Let’s make a little box, with four edges.”

I don’t understand making this some kind of lazy thought exercise after putting in so much effort into the research, writing, pitchfx wizardry, etc. Why skip the last 5 minutes of mspaint/photoshoping 2 rectangles into the images?

cass
Guest
cass
2 years 5 months ago

I was wondering this myself.

Brad
Guest
Brad
2 years 5 months ago

Fantastic article, never considered the change to “better balls”, really smart stuff. Thank you.

MrKnowNothing
Guest
MrKnowNothing
2 years 5 months ago

Some pitching coaches use voodoo. I’m convinced of it.

Gabes
Guest
Gabes
2 years 5 months ago

Maybe we should have got a live chicken…

DrEasy
Guest
DrEasy
2 years 5 months ago

Edinson’s re-invention, amirite?

DrEasy
Guest
DrEasy
2 years 5 months ago

Your Edinson’s running. Better go catch it!

DrEasy
Guest
DrEasy
2 years 5 months ago

Edwin Encarnacion. Is he the fourth president of the United States or the fourteenth, amirite?

DrEasy
Guest
DrEasy
2 years 5 months ago

Samuel Gervacio. ?Drug or drug?

AMIRITE?

DrEasy
Guest
DrEasy
2 years 5 months ago

Intellectual, Danny Valencia is not. Courageous, Manny Machado is not. Overweight, Nick Markakis is not. Slim jim, JJ Hardy is not. But forlorn, Tommy Hunter’s changeup is.

DrEasy
Guest
DrEasy
2 years 5 months ago

Would the owner of a white, four-and-a-half door sedan with the license plate RYAN-BRAWN please come to the front desk to claim your prize of a lifetime supply of Red Vines? Please provide proof of insurance, social security number, and the phone numbers of any ex-wives or, in the case you have never been married or are currently married to your first significant other, the phone number of 10 hairstylists in the area.

dl80
Guest
dl80
2 years 5 months ago

This may be a stupid question, but is Russell Martin anything to do with it? Are any of balls of the plate being called strikes?

Caleb W
Guest
Caleb W
2 years 5 months ago

It may be worth noting that 8.5% of the batters Edinson Volquez has faced this year are Carlos Gomez (7 of 82 PA against). And an additional 8.5% were against opposing pitchers. This is something to keep in mind as we try to figure out why batters aren’t laying off Edinson Volquez’s pitches outside the zone.

JoeElPaso
Guest
JoeElPaso
2 years 5 months ago

The % of pitches facing the other pitcher seems normal (one-ninth is ~ 11% but there are pinch hitters and effects of being lower in the order). The Gomez observation is relevant, though I am not convinced it is big enough to make a difference. The bigger issue with this article is that there is no test of significant difference between past distribution and this year’s distribution. It just looks like a cloud. How different, really, is it? I like the idea of better balls, though.

Joe Ruth
Guest
Joe Ruth
2 years 5 months ago

Nice. Very simple and persuasive statistical and data driven argument. Who cares where the box is as long as it’s consistent (per comment above). Really good job.

oLLdschool
Guest
oLLdschool
2 years 5 months ago

Kind of interesting, the catcher gives him the same target in every GIF, down and away then adjusts to the pitch. At first I thought he was badly missing, but maybe not? Curious enough I’ll have to look at older videos with other catchers and see if his catchers have always done that, and if he’s doing that for every pitch regardless of type. Dan Wilson used to set up on one side of the plate for Randy Johnson’s slider, then move across to receive it, but I don’t recall a catcher setting the same target for every pitch, and especially low and away like that. kinda weird

Sal
Guest
Sal
2 years 5 months ago

Low and away is generally where you want to spot a breaking ball to a right handed batter. It just appeared like he hung them and got too much of the plate, the first pitch looked to be the worst. This might be a byproduct of him concentrating on throwing strikes rather than getting swings and misses.

With Johnson, it might have been where he wanted Randy to “aim” the pitch so it would break to where the pitch should eventually wind up.

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