The Edinson Volquez Project Does Not Impress

Edinson Volquez epitomizes the “you can’t teach stuff” sentiment that’s long existed in professional baseball. Pure and simple, his stuff has kept him in the league. After all, he’s started 154 games and thrown 850.0 big-league innings, yet he’s enjoyed just one good season.

That banner season came in 2008, when he went 17-6 and compiled a 3.21 ERA (3.60 FIP). He was a legitimate four-win player and appeared to be on the cusp of a successful career with the Reds. Some even thought he was going to be an ace. After all, he was only 24 years old and was receiving a plethora of media hype for being the guy traded for Josh Hamilton.

Unfortunately for Cincinnati and for fantasy owners, the development into an ace never happened. His career was subsequently derailed by Tommy John surgery in 2009, a 50-game suspension for a positive PED test in 2010, and general ineffectiveness. To put it in perspective, the right-hander has thrown 574.0 innings since his tremendous breakout campaign in 2008 with an unimpressive 4.94 ERA.

Two things regarding that last point, both of which will be addressed in turn: (1) it’s incredible Volquez has continued to find regular work despite a near 5.00 ERA the past five years, and (2) everything was supposed to change coming into the 2012 season when he signed a contract with the San Diego Padres.

The 30-year-old hurler has roughly been replacement level the past half-decade, yet he’s made almost $8 million the past two seasons and recently inked a one-year deal worth $5 million with the Pittsburgh Pirates. This directly relates to the “you can’t teach stuff” reference at the opening of this article. Volquez annually underperforms, but the above-average raw stuff remains, tantalizing big-league teams in hoping the stars can align and he can put it together for a single season (like 2008) and they’ll look like geniuses.

It’s not difficult to see what big-league organizations see in him. He owns a fastball that can touch the mid-90s, as well as a curveball and changeup that can both legitimately miss bats. He’s almost struck out a batter per inning throughout his career, and his swinging-strike rate has always been better than average. Every year, a different organization believes — or perhaps more accurately, hopes — they can be the ones to help him harness that raw stuff, the ones who can somehow rein in his poor control and allow him to capitalize on his abilities.

That’s why the Padres signed him prior to the 2012 season. That’s why the Dodgers acquired him during a pennant race last year after the Padres gave up. And that’s why the Pirates, who also have postseason aspirations, wanted him for their starting rotation this upcoming year. All see the raw stuff and hope they can somehow catch lightning in a bottle this season. In particular to the Pirates, perhaps they believe this can be the Francisco Liriano Project (Part II) because that worked out beautifully for them a year ago.

As mentioned, everything was supposed to change when Volquez went to San Diego. Combine a guy with swing-and-miss stuff with a pitcher-friendly ballpark like Petco, and it was supposed to be magic. It never worked out. He compiled a modest 4.14 ERA in 2012, but he still walked 5.17 batters per nine innings and averaged barely over five innings per start. For fantasy purposes, he wasn’t even a top-100 starter and any advantages in the strikeout category were essentially washed away by his 1.45 WHIP. The pitcher-friendly park ultimately didn’t matter because the right-hander still allowed too many baserunners, which is blatantly unworkable no matter the ballpark.

Things got even worse last year. He was so ineffective that even the San Diego Padres, who had no hopes of competing, were forced to release him mid-season. His ERA ballooned to 6.01, and despite his 4.21 FIP suggesting he actually pitched better than the numbers would otherwise indicate, too many red flags exist to take that FIP too seriously. His fastball velocity decreased over a mile per hour to 92.5 mph. His swinging-strike rate tumbled from 10.1% to 8.6%, which is significant because he had posted a double-digit swinging-strike rate for each of the previous five seasons before experiencing the decline in 2012. Most of that decline seems to be tied to his changeup, which had a lower whiff rate than either the previous two seasons.

Even more concerning, his contact percentage jumped from 74.2% in 2012 to 79.5% last year. That’s never a positive sign when it’s accompanied by a significant velocity loss and a poor walk rate. And in the end, Edinson Volquez was the 297th-ranked starting pitcher in ESPN leagues in 2013. For our purposes at RotoGraphs, he was a lost cause with absolutely no rosterable value.

Now, the right-hander moves to PNC Park, another pitcher-friendly ballpark. It’s perhaps even more pitcher-friendly than Petco after they moved in the fences. But none of that really matters. It didn’t transform him into a desirable fantasy starter when he moved to a spacious ballpark in San Diego. And after the declines he experienced last year — especially in his strikeout rate, which has always been his one redeeming quality — I don’t expect PNC to suddenly make him ownable on fantasy rosters. There’s too much history, we’ve already tried this pitcher-friendly ballpark transition, and too many red flags about his performance (and frankly, possible injury) exist. Even if the Pirates somehow strike gold, I’m comfortable missing out on the fun. I’m not interested in drafting on hope.

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J.P. Breen is a graduate student at the University of Chicago. For analysis on the Brewers and fantasy baseball, you can follow him on Twitter (@JP_Breen).

14 Responses to “The Edinson Volquez Project Does Not Impress”

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  1. Jordy says:

    Two words for you: Ray Searage.
    Volquez might truly end up being terrible, but honestly, Searage gives me hope that not all enigmatic pitchers are lost.
    Worst case scenario, he gets released at the end of April and Brandon Cumpton or Jeff Locke or Casey Sadler get some starts until Jameson Taillon is ready for the show.

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    • srpst23 says:

      While I love Searage, even he couldn’t coax anything out of Jonathan Sanchez, and the Pirates had to release him after only 4 starts and 13.2 innings last season. So while “Papa” Ray has worked wonders with some reclamation projects in the past, he cannot work miracles. Although Volquez did manage to somehow post 0.4 WAR last year, while Sanchez posted an incredible -0.6 WAR in 2012 (Volquez does have a -0.6 WAR season on his books though in 2011).

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      • Cato the Elder says:

        Sanchez was a non-roster invitee who got 4 starts because of injuries. Not a fair comparison really.

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  2. DG Lewis says:

    Two more words: Dan Fox.

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  3. lexomatic says:

    Maybe next season he’s a reliever?

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    • Iron says:

      Maybe, but his walk rate would mean he’d be a $5 million dollar reliever you’d only want in low leverage situations. Also, for what its worth, his 1st inning WHIP was typically very bad.

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  4. lexomatic says:

    I mean 2015

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  5. Spa City says:

    As a Pirate fan I hope Ray Searage sees somthing that is not obvious to us. But I have no idea what that might be. $5M is not ridiculous for many teams to gamble on a lottery ticket like Volquez, but on the Pirates budget it seems steep. Volquez seemed like a non-roster invitee. My guess is he winds up as an expensive middle reliever. I hope I am wrong.

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  6. dutch says:

    One of these years he’ll get his ROY award.

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  7. Lorenzo says:

    Volquez’ problem is not enough testosterone. He has a low sperm deficiency that’s not all that uncommon, and was “busted” for “peds” while rehabbing from TJ surgery. The Reds had him on a poor substitute not on the proscribed list, but he couldn’t find it in the D.R. and a doctor there properly prescribed the appropriate testosterone supplement that would be no problem for non-ballplayers.

    The MLB protocol doesn’t accommodate chronic conditions, just one time use of proscribed substances, so poor Edinson is suffering from a messed up metabolism AND the inability to make babies. The Golf tour did the same thing when one journeyman golfer tested positive for the same supplement for the same condition and was banned when he should have been grandfathered in. Volquez is having his career ruined by MLB’s ‘get tough’ attitude toward drugs, and it’s a cryin’ shame, since there are probably others.

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  8. Bruce Springsteen says:

    CAUTION: Not for the faint of heart:

    Baseball-Reference’s Top 10 Similarity Scores for Edinson Volquez:

    Of these 10, the only one to turn out OK in his 30’s was Darren Oliver, who matched Volquez’s numbers closely enough but whose stuff is more comparable to Jamie Moyer.

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  9. Only Padres Fan Ever says:

    The Padres actually didn’t sign Volquez. He was part of the Latos deal. He did however, start opening day 2 years in a row. Stuff!

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  10. Bucfan says:

    Fantasy owners who focus on ERA are destined for 6th place. Volquez had a fluky high .325 BABIP, a low strand rate of 64.5%, K’ed 7.50 per 9 IP even with his “decline,” a reasonably good 4.21 FIP, and has a high ground ball rate.

    In short, basically the type of pitcher the Pirates buy cheap and then get very good production (Melancon, Burnett, Liriano, Mazzarro).

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