The Pittsburgh Pirates signed Edinson Volquez over the offseason, hoping to strike gold on another reclamation pickup like they did most recently did with Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett. Does Volquez qualify? Have the Pirates struck once again? Well, there's some good and bad.
We'll start with the good: Volquez has managed to chop about two runs off his ERA, down from 5.71 in 2013 to 3.65 this year. His BB% sits at a career-best 8%, a product of a much-improved 47% Zone Rate. And finally, he's used only 3.65 pitches per plate apperance, a career-best by a significant margin. Going off these numbers, maybe the Pirates have, at least partially, fixed Edinson Volquez, a pitcher who's always had good stuff without the ability to harness it, thus depleting his effectiveness.
But, is Volquez really fixed? Maybe not. He has a bottom-20 FIP and a bottom-20 xFIP, and some of his immediate company in both of those departments isn't great-we're talking about the likes of Eric Stults, Josh Collmenter and Marco Estrada, among others. Additionally, Volquez's K% has sunk to 15.8% and his SwSr% has dropped under 8%. You have to go all the way back to 2006, his second season in the bigs, to find worse marks in both categories.
In a nutshell, we wind up with this: Volquez's command is sharper, for sure, but his peripherals are no different from last year's. And, for what it's worth, both Steamer and ZiPS project agree. Basically, he's been the same pitcher he was a year ago, and that pitcher wasn't very good.
However, that's Volquez as a whole (in 2014). And, as a whole, no, the Pirates haven't nabbed another Francisco Liriano. That much is clear. Lately, however, Volquez has been better.
Let's split Volquez's 19 games (18 starts) in roughly two halves:
April 3 - May 17: 49.2 innings, 4.71 ERA, 5.26 FIP, 4.24 xFIP, 7.4 K-BB%
May 22 - July 10: 61.1 innings, 2.79 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 4.31 xFIP, 8.2 K-BB%
Yeah, big differences in almost every category, except xFIP, in which he's actually fared worse in, and K-BB%, which has seen just a small improvement.
So now, we must uncover the "why." What exactly has Volquez been doing differently? In-season adjustments can be tricky to uncover and tricky to implement consistently, more so for relievers than starters, given the little amount of time to tinker in-between appearances. A complete mechanical overhaul is pretty much impossible, but small tweaks that improve the command of a particular pitch or two are generally doable.
With that said, it's going to be tough to tell whether Volquez has made a slight mechanical tweak, so we'll leave that alone. But I have found a couple of interesting trends that may be byproducts of something mechanical. Or maybe not.
- One, the "Good Stretch Volquez" is throwing his changeup for strikes a lot more than "Bad Stretch Volquez" did--46.4 Strike% versus an 18.7 Strike%, respectively. His changeup Whiff% has also shot up by roughly 8% as well.
- Volquez is also commanding his curveball at a dramatically superior rate--54.2 Strike% versus a 28.8 Strike%. There has been a roughly 7% decrease in Whiff%, though.
What you'll want to take away from those bullets: He's had much better command of his off-speed arsenal. And that is worth noting because if you put the good and bad stretches together, it's hard to tell a difference, as both Volquez's curve and change have produced pretty good results, with the change yielding a .237 average and the curveball yielding a .181 average. That .237 changeup average could be better, sure, and recently it has been. He has thrown 28 changeups during his "good stretch" without yielding a hit.
But, with sharp or sloppy control, Volquez has mustered respectable results. Recently, though, it's been the path he's taken to get said results that's been different.
Now, we'll also want to look at what Volquez is doing in different situations. With the help of a couple of tables, let's do just that.
Here's Volquez during his good stretch (May 22 - July 10):
|ROB% (Runner on Base)||20.6||16.1||48.4|
Note: FB% includes all types of hard pitches from Baseball Savant. So, four-seamers, two-seamers, sinkers and cutter are all included in the overall usage percentage. This also applies for the next table.
A few initial observations: More changeups than curveballs with runners on base and in scoring position, and way more fastballs with no runners on base, as you'd expect
And now, here's Volquez during his bad stretch (April 3 - May 17):
The initial observations from above are basically flipped. Volquez, during his bad stretch, was really dependent on a curveball that he couldn't harness with runners on base and runners in scoring position. That his since changed, with his changeup getting more of the action, especially with runners in scoring position. Said approach seems to be working.
But let me again remind you of this: Volquez's command has been much, much better during his good stretch. Much better. Without the improved command, well, we might not be having this conversation. It's that big of a factor. Hitters during Volquez's bad stretch simply eliminated any type of control out of his changeup and curveball.
Not anymore. Now, all three pitches are pretty lethal, well-controlled weapons. And maybe Edinson Volquez is becoming just that: A reliable weapon for a Pirates team that's been scorching hot since mid-June. We'll see.
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Jake Dal Porto is a Featured Writer at Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @TheJakeMan24.