The Marlins have agreed to terms with right-handed starting pitcher Edinson Volquez on a two-year, $22 million dollar deal.
Volquez, who will turn 34 in July, was an integral part of the Royals rotation during their championship run in 2015. After an up-and-down 2016 season, Volquez declined his half of a mutual option with the Royals, electing to test free agency in search of a multiyear deal. He ultimately succeeded, as the Marlins struck early in search of rotation stability.
With Volquez, the Marlins rotation currently slots out as Tom Koehler, Adam Conley, Volquez, Wei-Yin Chen, and perhaps David Phelps. If the team decides to keep Phelps as a starter instead of returning him to the set-up role he excelled in last season, the Marlins would conceivably have five mid-level type starters set in their rotation. The team knew that in order to keep their young core of position players in place, free agency would be a necessary part of their offseason plan.
In the current free agent market, starting pitching is hard to come by. Even after posted an eye-opening 5.37 ERA for the Royals last season, Volquez was still considered to be one of the top free agent pitchers available. While the ERA doesn’t seem to warrant any short of significant investment by any major league team, there is more to dig into to fully understand Volquez’s 2016 season. To start, we have to identify outliers:
The main outlier is his ERA, which is a promising start. Beyond that, what this chart demonstrates is that Volquez’s performance hasn’t drastically declined in any particular category that he can control.
First off, he’s been healthy the last three seasons and can serve as an innings-eater if nothing else. The Marlins probably feel safe penciling Volquez in for 30 starts in 2017, even though he’s entering his age-34 season. Secondly, Volquez didn’t see a massive spike in his FIP compared to his ERA. While a 75-point FIP increase is definitely significant, it doesn’t match his near two-run jump in ERA. This is especially interesting given that Volquez has a track record of outperforming his FIP rather than underperforming it. He was effective in 2014 and 2015 with FIP values above his ERA, but for some reason the script reversed itself in 2016.
The next thing to look at, then, is strikeout and walk rates. These play a key role in calculating FIP because they are the parts of the game that the pitcher (for the most part) controls himself. In Volquez’s case, we would then expect to see a large change in strikeouts and walks to match his FIP change. However, his K/9 rate dropped by only 0.35 and his BB/9 rate rose by only 0.38. That just isn’t a significant enough change to explain the kind of results dropoff between 2015 and 2016.
Lastly on this chart, we see that his BABIP starts to explain a little bit of what may have happened to Volquez. Since 2014, his BABIP has increased by nearly 30 points each season. His career BABIP against is closer to .300, so we can safely assume that Volquez was a victim of a good amount of bad luck this season.
Next, we want to see if there is any sign of deteriorating physical skills. One could argue that a 6.61 K/9 rate is certainly attainable with average velocity and pitch movement, so it’s important to see if age is starting to play a factor.
The following chart measures his average pitch usage and average pitch speed from each of his last three seasons:
Yet again, we don’t see any large change that would warrant a significant drop in performance. Volquez’s velocity is staying above a healthy 93 miles per hour, while his curveball and changeup hover in the mid-to-low 80s. In terms of usage, Volquez has pretty much figured out what pitches he is comfortable with and how often he wants to throw them. For example, if we had seen a large drop-off in fastball usage, then we could assume that even if he’s averaging similar velocity numbers, consistently reaching that level of velocity may require too much effort to effectively throw 100 pitches per start. In that case, we would have some evidence to suggest that as Volquez enters his mid-30s, his overall stamina and physical ability may be showing signs of decline.
The Marlins may be banking on Volquez’s 2016 season being a fluke. With no discernible differences in physical ability, strike out rate, and health, there is a lot to like about him moving forward. Plus, a reunion with Jim Benedict, the Marlins’ current director of pitcher development who helped coached Volquez with the Pirates in 2014, could help iron out any mechanical issues he may have developed over the course of last season. As a whole, the Marlins need stability. If Volquez can provide 30 starts similar to his 2015 form, Miami will have gotten more than what it paid for.
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Ronnie Socash is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him at @RJSocash.