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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.