With a glut of starters at their disposal, the Pirates are probably done with A.J. Burnett. Yes, Burnett is a significantly more appealing option than Volquez. Yes, the Pirates haven’t technically ruled Burnett out. But let’s be realistic, this signing sure looks like an insurance policy for losing Burnett.
This also means that Pittsburgh thinks that they can fix Volquez. Of course that’s educated speculation on my part -- I can’t quite dig into the minds of Pirates ownership -- but it’s not preposterous gibberish. The obvious example is Francisco Liriano, who, for just $1 million guaranteed (he bumped his earnings up through incentives), returned the Pirates 3.1 wins, earning honors as last offseason’s savviest pickup. That is just one example, and the Pirates surely aren’t going to transform every middling to bad pitcher with some upside into a capable or better starter. Thus, assuming they can do the same with Volquez as they did with Liriano is a risky assumption.
Still, it’s an interesting comparison because of the similarities it draws Just look at their numbers entering open waters -- for Liriano, that’s 2012. For Volquez, that’s 2013.
I wasn’t kidding. With the exception of Liriano’s superior WAR (by about a win, due to the K% separation), they’re almost twins. In this case, that’s not exactly a good thing given the paltriness of the numbers above, but that’s hardly the point. The actual point: Liriano went from bad to extremely good. So could Volquez, with emphasis on the "could," of course.
Fixing Volquez, however, isn’t going to be a walk in the park.
There’s his noted erratic command. For some perspective on that, consider this tidbit: Among starting pitchers, only Jonathan Sanchez carries a higher BB/9 rate since 2009, and it’s been a long, long time since he was a consistent fixture in a major league rotation. Take that for what it’s worth.
However, cleaning up Volquez’s mechanics in hopes of cutting down on his walks is doable. That doesn’t make the process any easier, of course, but the key word there is doable. Some adjustments can be made, giving Pittsburgh a glimmer of hope.
Meanwhile, something that isn’t quite in anyone’s control: Volquez’s waning velocity. You’ll see in the table below that the decline isn’t extremely sharp, but it’s enough to raise a few red flags, especially since Volquez is on the wrong side of 30, which, per FanGraphs, is right around the age when a pitcher’s velocity starts to tumble.
So the losses in a one-year span come out to be exactly a mile-per-hour, and if historical trends hold true, Volquez will likely see a continued decline as he heads into his mid-30’s. Pitchers losing some heat as they age isn’t uncommon, though -- it’s an expectation.
More importantly, Volquez hasn’t surrendered his ability to miss bats. Teams put a premium on that skill, because missing bats (eventually leading to strikeouts) cancel defensive vagaries. Volquez does some of both, which is good. What isn’t good: he corrupts his swing-and-miss stuff with lousy command.
So there’s the low-down on Volquez’s problems. There are reasons to believe that he will be a bust. That’s where the odds are given his production over the past few years. On the other hand, there are reasons to believe that Volquez will be a worthwhile investment. And the perhaps the biggest reason is also a darn simple reason: To be worth the $5 million, Volquez doesn’t have to do much.
The current price of a win is in the $6-$7 million range, so for Volquez, he would have to muster about a win’s worth of production to yield fair results on a $5 million annual sum. Which is a reasonable prediction. Very reasonable. Steamer see Volquez producing 1.9 wins. Perhaps that’s a bit aggressive, making Oliver’s 0.9 wins a more realistic forecast.
If you’re not entirely hooked on the projections, think about it like this: Volquez was worth 0.4 wins in one of his worst seasons as a pro. Said season included a lofty .325 opponents’ BABIP, a LOB% of 64.5% and a large ERA-FIP gap. Suffice to say: 2014 should bring Volquez at least a bit more luck, even if he doesn’t out-pitch his FIP--he usually doesn’t.
There’s one more factor to consider: Since 2009, Volquez’s GB% of 50% ranks 25th in baseball. I bring this up because the Pirates frequently utilized shifts to further tilt the odds of recording the out. But since shifts are tough to measure, we can go off of UZR, which tells us that the Pirates have a plus-defender at all four infield positions. They're set at catcher too, as Russell Martin was also a plus-defender and framer. Indeed, that's quite a group.
Now ... the San Diego Padres (Volquez's former team) also boasted a plus-defender at every infield position in 2013, so the trade-off isn’t massive. What it boils down to are the shifts and whether Volquez can reap the benefits of that tactic. At the least, he should get something out of it, but counting on shifts entirely, well, that’s another risky assumption.
Either way, Volquez should find a way to be worth the money, which is important for a frugal Pirates organization that doesn’t have the means to easily absorb $5 million. Best case, Volquez produces a Liriano-like season and the Pirates once again get to where the genius hat. Worst case, he repeats 2013 and barely gets to the targeted one-win slot. It’s a calculated risk.
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