When the ever-breaking news broke upon us that the Pirates had signed starting pitcher Edinson Volquez, I, perhaps like you, felt a cringe in the part of my soul that yearns for March 31st and Opening Day.
In spite of my saber-maniacal bent, Volquez’s 5.71 ERA still hit me like I was a pitcher with a 5.71 ERA.
But . . .
What kind of sabermetric site would this be if I didn’t quickly pick myself off the floor and race to check Volquez’s 2013 xFIP.
I did. And the news was . . . not so bad. I saw that Volquez had a 4.07 xFIP and I was encouraged. So, I did a little more looking and found that he had the second best walk rate of his career in 2013 and that he has a well-above average career groundball rate of 48.1%. That took me beyond the stun of the Pirates paying $5 million to a pitcher with a 5.71 ERA, past the hope that there might be some hope for Volquez, and straight into something that I really like – curiosity.
There had to be something going on with Volquez that dropped his walk rate, kept his groundball percentage above average, and allowed him to post an xFIP that was 1.64 points better than his ERA.
I think I’ve found it. And I’m making a semi-educated, wishful guess that it is the reason the Pirates seemingly overspent on Volquez.
Mr. Edinson was in the process of re-inventing himself last season – in a manner that the Pirates love.
In 2007, when Volquez was 23 years old, 64.7% of his pitches were four-seam fastballs that he threw at an average velocity of 93.5 mph.. He didn’t throw any of the sinking, groundball generating, two-seam fastballs that make Pirate pitching coach Ray Searage and the masters of defensive shifts drool.
In 2008, Volquez pitched 196 innings and threw only 10 sinkers; not even a single spit’s worth.
In 2010, Volquez’s went to the two-seam fastball more often, but he still only used it on 21.6% of his pitches and the four-seamer was still his weapon of choice at 35.3%.
In 2011 and 2012, the two-seam, sinking fastball was Volquez’s least used pitch.
But, in 2013, at age 29, Volquez threw 1,048 sinking two-seamers – more than any other pitch. He threw it 34.9% of the time, while the four-seamer was his least used pitch at 19.8%. He flipped his repertoire completely.
Volquez’s velocity was down a bit in 2013. His sinker averaged 92.4 mph. But I suspect that he was focused more on controlling his new toy than blowing it past hitters. And he was fairly effective in that department. His walk rate was down to 4.07/9IP from 5.17 in 2012 and 5.38 in 2011.
Volquez’s strikeout rate was also down last year to 7.5/9IP from 8.6/9IP in both 2012 and 2011. But, again, that could be explained by the fact that he was apparently re-inventing himself with a new primary pitch and a new approach to getting outs.
I wouldn’t be too concerned about Volquez’s drop to 7.5 K/9IP. The starting pitcher with the best groundball percentage in major league baseball, Charlie Morton, isn’t a big strikeout pitcher. He had only 6.6 K/9 in 2013 and things worked out pretty well for him.
It may just be that Morton is the pitcher the Pirates see Volquez becoming. And pitching coach Ray Searage may be just the man to put the finishing touches on the evolution, as he did with Morton.
Will Volquez match Morton’s 3.26 ERA and 3.69 xFIP? Very unlikely.
Will he bring the walks down a little farther? Will he get his sinker to induce even more groundballs? Will he drop his 5.71 ERA down to the level of last year’s 4.07 xFIP or better? The Pirates are banking $5 million on it.