What’s Wrong with Edinson Volquez?

The One Night Only game previews for this weekend will appear at 3pm ET. In the meantime, what follows concerns one of the starters for today’s only afternoon game — Edinson Volquez of the Cincinnati Reds (who play in Chicago at 2:20pm ET).

As any member of his eponymous support group will tell you, Cincinnati Red starter Edinson Volquez is an enigma.

On the one hand, the 27-year-old features a fastball that sits at about 94 mph, a whiff-making changeup, the ability to induce grounders at above-average rates, and an overall swinging-strike percentage that generally places among the league’s best. (The 11.6 SwStr% he presently sports is eighth-highest out of 113 qualified pitchers.)

On the other hand, there are glaring — almost tragic — flaws. Reds fans and Volquez’s fantasy owners are likely acquainted with the righty’s first-inning struggles this season. Whether the product of randomness or something more specific than that, Volquez has been miserable in the first, allowing more than twice as many runs in that inning (14 total thus far) than in all the 27.1 frames he’s pitched in innings two through six combined (just six runs allowed). His defense-independent stats back this up: Volquez has a FIP of about 13.90 in his six first innings compared to a ca. 4.10 FIP in all the other innings he’s pitched after the first.

As has been the case with other iterations of this “What’s Wrong with X?” series, much of what is haunting seemingly “broken” players in these early days of the 2011 season is bad luck. Nor is Volquez an exception to this. His 4.12 xFIP suggests that he’s pitching — if not excellently, per se — then at least decently. Much of the difference between his xFIP and 5.67 ERA is attributable to his home-run per fly-ball rate of 24.1%. That number, which is the worst in the league among qualified pitchers, is likely to regress toward Volquez’s career mark of 11.7% — probably even better than that, as the league’s HR/FB rate has dropped as a whole.

Beyond these most obvious factors, however, lies something a bit more mysterious — namely, the cause behind Volquez’s crazy walk rate, which stands at 6.48 BB/9 as of this morning. Our man Mike Podhorzer addressed Volquez’s walk rate in the middle of April, writing:

Of course, we all know what the issue is: Volquez sometimes seems to be pitching as if the plate was the size of an amoeba. It is frustrating to watch when this frequent occurrence happens, to say the least. Amazingly, coming into yesterday’s game, Volquez had thrown first pitch strikes 64.4% of the time, well above the league average of 58.9% and easily a career best. His Zone% of 46.3% is not too far below the 47.8% league average, so one wonders how he manages to walk so many batters. I would guess that on an overall basis, he does not throw the number of balls that would suggest such poor control. However, the walks are coming because Volquez loses focus or whatever and throws balls in bunches. This is just me speculating here and throwing out a possible explanation.

While I don’t necessarily possess the tools to go far beyond Podhorzer’s speculations, I thought it might be interesting to linger a bit longer on his (i.e. Volquez’s, not Podhorzer’s) plate-discipline numbers.

Anecdotally speaking, one might assume that Zone% (i.e. the amount of pitches inside a hypothetical strike zone) would correlate strongly with walk rate. As it turns out, one would be mostly wrong. In fact, Zone% doesn’t even go half way towards explaining walk rate.

Regard, data from 257 qualified pitchers, 2008-10:

As you can see, the angle of the slope is somewhat telling, but the data points are rather scattered on either side.

What correlates much more strongly to walk rate is first-strike percentage (F-Strike%). Here’s the data from that same sample of qualified pitchers:

Now, here’s the strange part: if we plug Volquez’s current first-strike rate of 56.9% into the equation you see there (the y = -15.117x + 11.907 one, I mean), we don’t get anything close to Volquez’s current walk rate of 6.48 BB/9. Rather, we get an expected walk rate 3.3 BB/9 — that is, about half.

Two other pitchers since 2008 have posted identical first-strike percentages to Volquez’s current rate — Ricky Romero in 2009 and Vicente Padilla in 2008 — yet they posted walk rates of “just” 3.99 BB/9 and 3.42 BB/9, respectively.

Why the difference?

Well, as Podhorzer suggests, it’s possible that event chaining has something to do with it. It is, indeed, possible that Volquez, for one reason or another, throws balls in bunches, which would give him more than the expected number of walks.

Another likely reason for the difference in walk rate between Volquez and his two counterparts actually has to do with one of Volquez’s strengths — namely, his ability to induce swings and misses. As mentioned above, Volquez has one of the better swinging-strike rates in the majors right now — a fact that has directly contributed to his excellent strikeout rate of 9.45 K/9. But it’s because he induces so many swings and misses that Volquez is likely to find himself getting deeper into counts.

In that 2009 season when they threw 56.9% first-pitch strikes, Romero and Padilla recorded swinging-strike rates of 9.6% and 8.2%, respectively — both above-average marks for starters, who generally sit somehwere around 8.0%, but still a pretty fair distance from the 11.6% mark Volquez is currently sporting. Because batters put the ball into play more often against Romero and Padilla, they (i.e. the batters) were less likely to make it into situations where they could walk. Batters who face Volquez, however, might actually find themselves whiffing their way into walk-friendly counts.

In terms of “fixing” Volquez, there’s no easy explanation. Regression should take care of the biggest part of “what’s wrong” with him in the form of fewer home runs per fly ball. Volquez’s walk rate is, however, a different proposition. It’s clear that he can miss bats, and, despite the best advice of Ron Gardenhire, one is reluctant to dissuade a pitcher from using his best stuff. Moreover, that line of thinking takes for granted that Volquez could throw more strikes if he tried. For one thing, Volquez has never shown plus control; for another, he’s still returning from Tommy John surgery, where control is the last thing to return.

If there’s one change that might benefit Volquez — although, I’d certainly stop short of calling it a suggestion proper — it might be a shift in pitch selection from more four-seam to more two-seam fastballs. Currently, per Pitch F/x, Volquez throws about 37% of the former and just 18% of the latter. Per Texas Leaguers, however, it’s the two-seamer that has a higher strike percentage (including a slightly higher whiff rate). Granted, those outcomes can change as pitch selection changes, but the difference in the two pitches is also likely slight enough that any real alterations would be minimized.

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Carson Cistulli occasionally publishes spirited ejaculations at The New Enthusiast.

17 Responses to “What’s Wrong with Edinson Volquez?”

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  1. Dan says:

    One of the better What’s Wron With” articles. I like how you brought in the F-Strike% and Zone% analysis along with providing a suggestion for improvement. Well done.

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  2. Colin says:

    Having watched Volquez a lot this year, your hypothesis has merit. Sometimes he will lose a feel for the strikezone for an inning at a time and you can almost here Uecker in the backround, “Ball 8, Ball 12, Ball 16…” He routinely misses his spots, but his stuff is so good that when he misses he’s often getting swinging strikes anyway. I remember him trying to go low and away with a fastball in his last start, and instead struck the hitter out when it ran up and in. You are right to suggest that when the hitters are swinging, he is often running into deep counts and can’t be trusted to throw a strike at 3-2.

    The walks tend to come in bunches, but when he gets locked in (especially with his change-up, which sometimes he cannot control at all), he is devastating – often reeling off two or three innings where the hitters cannot hit a ball squarely. Illustrating this point, in his last game against Florida: 5 walks, only 2 hits.

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  3. psychump says:

    What’s wrong with Jonathan Sanchez?

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  4. neuter_your_dogma says:

    Cliff’s 2010 data point should have its own chart.

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  5. adohaj says:

    the R^2 on zone% vs. BB/9 was really shocking to me. I wasn’t expecting .7 or anything but .12 wow

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  6. Mike Podhorzer says:

    Excellent Carson. Interesting to see the Zone% and F-Strike% graphs. Many of these metrics I use/intrepret with the assumption that they correlate to what we expect. Good to see that maybe I should tone down my usage of Zone% as related to control numbers and focus more onF-Strike%.

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  7. lexomatic says:

    How does this compare to his career? A quick glance at his player page makes things look pretty consistent except for his 1 big year (09?), but with more GBs. He may be an enigma, but his performance has been pretty consistent (when the season’s done.)

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  8. tim says:

    wow. this is definitely one of the best analytical articles i’ve ever seen on this site. time to buy low!

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  9. rjbiii says:

    Excellent article. The only one I’ve read that has gone beyond the ordinary stats for this site and didn’t just fall back on luck and regression or base assumptions about the player (he’s old and done, he’s still in his prime so wait). Really good stuff that kept me reading rather than just skimming through. Thanks.

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  10. john says:

    great article. He is extremely frustrating. You see how good he can be and then he walks 2 straight.

    Your absolutely right about balls in bunches. I think it’s mostly mental. If a break doesn’t go his way his a mess for awhile.

    What are the stats for TJ recoverers as far as bb/9 goes? He just reached 100 inn. post TJ in the majors. How much longer before he gets the control back?

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    • The general recovery time is 12-18 months. Volquez is over that latter number now, but every player’s different, obviously, so we can’t draw any hard conclusions.

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  11. mike says:

    I’m assuming the PED problem he had shouldn’t be considered an issue due to the velocity he still has.

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  12. AndyS says:

    I traditionally think of Carson as the of the color commentator of Fangraphs, but with a saber twist, but this was straight up analysis and impressively some of the better analysis on the site.

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  13. jpg says:

    I’ve seen him enough and it boils down to one thing: the guy refuses to pitch to contact. He simply tries to strike out every single hitter, especially when he’s in a jam. Instead of attacking hitters he nibbles and works himself into so many 3-ball counts. A lot of 3-ball counts is bad for any pitcher, it a disaster when your control resembles that of Rickey Vaughn.

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