Can the Pirates fix Edinson Volquez?

Thearon W. Henderson

Edinson Volquez was really good in 2008. Since then, he's been really bad. The Pirates resuscitated the careers of A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano the last two seasons. Can Pittsburgh pull off another reclamation project with Volquez?

Edinson Volquez needs fixing. His 2008 season, which was his first full season in the big leagues, yielded a 3.21 ERA/3.60 FIP with 3.9 fWAR. He offset an 11.1 percent walk rate with a 24.6 percent strikeout rate thanks to a mid 90s fastball and excellent changeup. However, from 2009-13, Volquez has been perhaps baseball's worst pitcher, his 132 ERA- being the second worst mark in the game. Among qualified pitchers, only Carlos Marmol and Jonathan Sanchez have higher walk rates than Volquez' ugly 12.3 percent mark.

After posting a 5.71 ERA and a sky-high 20.7 percent HR/FB ratio in 2011, a move to spacious Petco Park was supposed to rejuvenate his career. However, in two seasons with the Padres, Volquez struggled mightily. In 59 starts, he walked 11.9 percent of hitters and posted a 4.96 ERA before being released in August of 2013.

His five starts after signing with the Dodgers were more encouraging, as he struck out 22.8 percent of hitters while walking just 7.0 percent, on his way to an 84 xFIP-. An astronomical HR/FB rate of 21.7 percent conspired to keep his ERA/FIP high.

Despite the somewhat encouraging end to the season, 2013 was a disappointing year for Volquez. His fastball velocity, which had been stuck at a healthy 93-94 miles per hour for the last five seasons dropped by one mph. In addition, his swinging strike rate dipped below 10 percent for the first time since he became a starting pitcher down to 8.6 percent. The whiff rate on his changeup, which had ranged from 17.1-24.6 percent, dropped all the way down to 12.7 percent, and he threw his curveball more than his changeup for the first time in his career. Finally, Volquez' trend of underachieving his peripherals continued.

Given all these disappointing facts, is there hope for Volquez in 2014?

First of all, don't forget what the Pirates have done in recent seasons with pitchers who have tantalizing stuff but spotty track records. Compare Volquez' numbers over the last two seasons with what Francisco LIriano and A.J. Burnett did in their two seasons prior to joining the Pirates.

Player IP ERA- FIP- xFIP- K% BB% GB%
Volquez 352.0 137 115 108 20.1 11.6 49.2
Liriano 281.1 123 108 105 21.7 12.4 46.4
Burnett 376.2 123 114 101 19.1 9.7 47.0

If you squint, you can make a case that Volquez 2012-13 seasons are comparable to Liriano and Burnett's pre-Pirate struggles. Volquez' ERA- is a lot higher, but his FIP- is close to Burnett's, and his xFIP- is close to Liriano's. Now, look at what Burnett and Liriano have done since donning a Pirates uniform.

Player IP ERA- FIP- xFIP- K% BB% GB%
Liriano 161.0 83 80 83 24.5 9.5 50.5
Burnett 393.1 91 85 82 23.6 7.8 56.7

That's a dramatic turnaround. Both of these pitchers went from subpar to ace status.

One factor that favors a Volquez about-face is Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, who has received a lot of credit for Liriano and Burnett's recent success. Another is the Pirates catching situation, which features Russell Martin and Chris Stewart, two of the best pitch-framers in baseball. Rookie Tony Sanchez also figures to be strong in that category if he should make the roster.

Why is this important? Well, there are four catchers that have caught at least 20 Volquez starts, and the difference in his results are drastic. Focusing only on strikeout and walk rates, this is what we see.

Catcher IP K% BB%
Ramon Hernandez 174.0 21.6 14.2
Paul Bako 157.2 25.4 10.9
Nick Hundley 131.0 18.0 12.6
Yasmani Grandal 114.1 24.6 12.0

Using data from 2008-13, Grandal has rated as one of the best pitch-framers in baseball, and Bako was also very good. Hundley and Hernandez have consistently been well below average. These aren't huge samples, and there are plenty of factors at play to muddle the data.

Regardless, the differences are striking. Using kwERA, a incredibly simple ERA estimator developed by GuyM and Tom Tango, there's a difference of almost a full run based on his results with Grandal/Bako and Hernandez/Hundley. If the Pirates are placing a bet on Volquez based in part on this information, it's not a bad one.

It would be a mistake to say Volquez' situation is just like that of Burnett and Liriano. The Pirates previous reclamation projects had more past success than Volquez, who has essentially been a replacement level pitcher for all but one season. Still, similar to Burnett and Liriano, Volquez is a pitcher whose stuff has not matched up with his results in recent years. If he is ever going to return to his 2008 form, Pittsburgh is his best chance, and probably last chance.

. . .

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and StatCorner.

Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and Gammons Daily. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves

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