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Edinson Volquez: An evolving pitcher?

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The newest Royal has modified his approach over the past two years to varied results.

The $20MM Man
The $20MM Man
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Edinson Volquez is the latest in a flurry of signings in which--assuming the figures on this latest deal come without yet-to-be-reported signing bonuses boni or buyouts on mutual options--the Royals committed $48MM over the next two seasons to the trio of Kendrys Morales, Alex Rios (obviously just for one year), and Volquez.

The subjects of Morales and Rios have both been widely discussed and analyzed in these parts; and while the Royals seem to have put their eggs in the proverbial "let's hope these guys were only terrible last year" basket on their two bigger signings of position players, the signing of Edinson Volquez seems to be an instance of buying high on a player based on the results of his most recent campaign.

Now obviously, in each instance the Royals were targeting players who would sign short-term deals. With payroll obligations being what they are projected to be in 2016 and beyond, the Royals were unlikely to have been players on the market for the members of this offseason's free agent class who were going to sign deals for three years or more. None of the signings of the past week are going to cripple the franchise for years to come. If each one breaks the way Dayton Moore and Company are banking on, then the Royals could conceivably see a surplus return in value for what they paid.

In the case of Edinson Volquez, the Royals clearly looked to his season in Pittsburgh in 2014 and liked what they saw. So who is Edinson Volquez?

The 31-year-old one-time member of the DVD trio of Rangers pitching prospects who was traded for Josh Hamilton straight up is a hard-throwing right-hander for whom the Royals will be the fifth organization in which he has played since the 2011 season.

Between stints in the majors and minors, he is 848.1 innings removed from a 2009 Tommy John surgery. In 1042.2 career innings pitched at the major-league level, his career 4.44 ERA is a shade under his 4.32 FIP and is further removed from his 4.17 xFIP and 4.27 SIERA. In his four full seasons post-TJS, Volquez has averaged just over 185 innings and has been sidelined for a total of just 14 days (with blisters in 2012).

Of course of those last four seasons, two saw Volquez sporting an ugly 5.71 ERA at their conclusion, and in the case of 2011, his ERA didn't tell a drastically different story than his 5.21 FIP did, as his BABIP allowed was just .293. His 8.61 K/9 and 21.3 K% were respectable, but his 5.38 BB/9 and 13.1 BB% were repugnant, making for his worst K/BB in a fully healthy full season. In short, he was really terrible that year. Much of that was due to an astronomically and comically high 20.7 HR/FB% that only Roberto Hernandez (2013) and Jason Marquis (2012) have equaled or surpassed in the past five seasons. His 4.08 xFIP and 4.24 SIERA that season certainly suggest that some of his struggles that season were tied to long balls.

His 2013 campaign was similar to his 2011 one in that he had an abysmal 5.71 ERA. One needn't look much further than the fact that he was released by the Padres near the end of August to know how bad he was, but this time not everything was his fault. His .325 BABIP was his ultimate undoing, and while his LD% was 3.0% above his career mark, that certainly doesn't account for 1.47 run difference between his 4.24 FIP and 5.71 ERA. His other big issue in 2013 was an uncharacteristically low 64.5 LOB%, markedly worse than his 71.7% career mark. The 4.24 FIP, 4.07 xFIP, and 4.26 SIERA that year are further supported as being more reflective of how he was pitching when looking at his dip in walk-rates (4.07 BB/9, 9.9 BB%--the latter being a career-best mark at that point). Even when taking into account a simultaneous drop in K-rates to career low-points up till then, his K/BB improved to 1.84, his best full-season mark since his 3.9 fWAR 2008 campaign.

While Volquez's 2014 was pretty much the exact opposite of his 2013 in terms of run-based results in comparison to his DIPS, under the tender care of Russell Martin and Chris Stewart--both of whom are above-average pitch framers, particularly Martin, whose 11.7 RAA was the ninth-best rate of any catcher and fifth-best amongst full-time catchers--and with an infield behind him that employs shifts aggressively, Volquez had best ERA of his career, 3.04. His 4.15 FIP, 4.20 xFIP, and 4.20 SIERA were all more or less in line with his career norms (4.32, 4.17, and 4.27, respectively), so it stands to reason that the .263 BABIP he enjoyed was something that was more than likely unsustainable. The strange thing is that Volquez saw career lows in both strikeout (6.54 K/9, 17.3 K%) and walk (3.32 BB/9, 8.8 BB%) rates.

What Volquez did in 2013 and 2014 was actually similar, at least when looking at how he changed his approach.

The data that follows is from his Brooks Baseball page:

Years Four-Seam Sinker Curve Change
2010-2012 33.09% 19.01% 22.44% 25.46%
2013-2014 9.48% 45.67% 25.20% 19.63%

Now it should be noted that Brooks' figures differ from Fangraphs' PitchFX data. Per Fangraphs, he has thrown the four-seamer 19.0% of the time over the past two years and the sinker 36.1% of the time. Regardless of exact usage, Volquez clearly made a change in approach relying more heavily on the sinker and curve while dialing back the change and four-seamer.

This change in approach has come hand-in-hand with more efficacy, and his rising first-strike percentage over the past two years lends credence to an assumed change in attack.

Pitches-per-batter:

  • 2010 - 4.0
  • 2011 - 3.99
  • 2012 - 4.02
  • 2013 - 3.88
  • 2014 - 3.68

Given the change in the implementation of his repertoire, there's reason to believe that his lower walk-rate is at least theoretically sustainable, as the change seems suited to a strike-throwing approach relying on the BABIP fairy. Obviously, some of the drop in the 2014 figure probably owes to the pitch-framing of his catchers, an area in which Salvador Perez--who is a genuinely poor pitch framer--will not be helping. Fortunately, the Royals are far from averse to shifting their infield, and given the Royals' sterling defense, it isn't hard to envision such an approach yielding positive results for Volquez.

The issue, of course, is that Volquez is projected by Steamer to be worth just 0.8 fWAR and by ZiPS to be worth 1.1 fWAR. Moreover, he will be switching over from the National League with its pitchers swinging baseball bats, which will hurt the bottom line. All of this will be costing the Royals $10MM per year for 2015 and 2016. Since he's been worth more than 1.0 fWAR twice and 1.0 RA9-WAR or rWAR three times, hoping for him playing up to what he's being paid may not be wise. Perhaps his new approach with one of the best defenses in baseball playing behind him will yield positive results, but it is not the most likely outcome.

Moreover, it seems like the one place they may have wanted to actually take a risk on a successful comeback might have been on a pitcher returning from injury like Kris Medlen, Josh Johnson, or Brandon Beachy. Obviously there's a bit more security with Volquez, who is riding four years of clean bills of health, but the upside of a Medlen, Johnson, or Beachy would seem a risk with a chance for a higher yield and for fewer years of commitment than they have just tied up with Volquez, himself a Tommy John surgery survivor.

Regardless of philosophical roster construction beliefs, the fact that Volquez is getting $10MM per year for the next two years coming off a [probably] luck-fueled 2014 season is not a dish that goes down without a plugging of the nose.