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Edinson Volquez: 2012 Value Pick?

Back in 2008, Edinson Volquez shone near as brightly as any young starter in the game. The 24-year-old, acquired from Texas the previous winter for Josh Hamilton, used his low-90s heat and devastating changeup to post a 3.21 ERA and 4.2 Wins Above Replacement in nearly 200 innings. Since then, however, his standing has dimmed considerably. Volquez succumbed to Tommy John surgery in 2009, got slapped with a 50-game PED suspension in 2010 and got lit up and demoted to the minors in 2011. He has been worth just 0.8 WAR over the past three years, with a 5.01 ERA in 221 frames.

It seems odd, then, to suggest that a pitcher coming off three lost seasons could be a bargain in 2012. But Volquez still has strikeout stuff and shouldn’t have near as much of a problem keeping the ball in the park next season as he did in 2011, especially with his move west to Petco as part of San Diego’s haul for Mat Latos. If Volquez can at least show passable control — particularly against lefties — he could provide a nice return on investment in the later rounds on draft day.

Judging by ERA, Volquez (5.71) was the worst MLB starter with 100+ innings pitched this side of John Lackey in 2011. But his 4.08 xFIP paints the picture of a control-challenged guy whose strong K and ground ball tendencies made him a serviceable arm. While his ERA was 47 percent worse than the league average, his xFIP was six percent below average. Put that in Petco, which can earn a pitcher like Aaron Harang a multi-year deal, and you’re looking at an above-average ERA.

Volquez’s post-Tommy John stuff still misses a lot of bats, as he struck out 21.3% of the batters he faced last year. That was well above the 17.7% average for starters and ranked in the same territory as Jered Weaver and Vance Worley. He also churned out lots of grounders, with a 52.4 GB%. The big reason for the gulf between Volquez’s ERA and xFIP was his astronomical home run per fly ball rate: 20.7% of the fly balls that batters hit left the yard against him in 2011. That was, by far, the highest clip in the majors. For context, the league average HR/FB rate for starters was 10%, and Volquez’s career average prior to last year was 10.7%.

Even if Volquez had remained at Great American Ballpark, which according to StatCorner increases homers by 20 percent compared to a neutral park for left-handed hitters and 33 percent for righty batters, we would have expected him to give up far fewer round-trippers in 2012. But that’s especially the case now that he gets to pitch home games in Petco, which is a graveyard left-handed power (59 HR park factor) and dings right-handers a bit, too (95 HR park factor).

With ample Ks and ground balls, better luck on fly balls hit and a drastic change in park factors from GABP (104 overall park factor for lefties, 103 for righties) to Petco (90 park factor for lefties, 92 for righties), Volquez could very well post a sub-four ERA in his new digs if he just replicates his core performance from last year. But if he’s ever going to attain more than adequacy again, he needs to find the strike zone more often — and that goes double against lefties.

Volquez walked plenty of same-handed hitters (10%, compared to the 6.9% average for RHP vs. RHB), but he looked like he was pitching blindfolded against lefties (17.6 BB%, 9.4% average for RHP vs. LHB). He threw his four-seam fastball and changeup for strikes against same handed hitters about two-thirds of the time, yet he got a strike just 56% of the time with his four seamer vs. lefties, and 54% with his changeup. Volquez missed high-and-away with the four-seamer…

Volquez's four-seam fastball location to lefty batters, 2011

…and low-and-away with the change…

Even at the top of his game in 2008, Volquez’s control wasn’t all that good. But we can at least hope that Padres skipper Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley hammer home to Volquez in spring training that he can get away with some pitches over the plate in Petco –particularly to lefties– that might have scorched him back in Cincy. Even if Volquez remains a walk machine, he’s got the high-strikeout, high-ground ball profile and cavernous park to cut his ERA down to the four range, and maybe a bit below. If he takes a more aggressive approach against port-side hitters, he could be one of the best value picks of the 2012 season.