In 2013, Edinson Volquez stunk. He put up a 5.71 ERA, the second time in three years he had posted that crooked number. Volquez had once been a highly touted pitching prospect, ranked in the Top 100 by Baseball America, and good enough to be traded for hitting phenom Josh Hamilton early in their careers. He won 17 games in his first season in Cincinnati in 2008, with a 4.2 fWAR season, according to Fangraphs. But he struggled with inconsistency following that season and had Tommy Surgery in 2009 before getting smacked with a 50-game suspension for PEDs. In 2012, he was dealt to the Padres with Yasmani Grandal, Yonder Alonso, and Brad Boxberger for Mat Latos.
After a season and a half in San Diego, the Padres had enough and released him.
"At times we thought we had him on a roll," Padres manager Bud Black said. "There were times when we thought we had him where we needed him to be, but just the uneven-ness of his performance -- because the talent is there -- is frustrating."
By the time of his release in 2013, Volquez had a 4.75 career ERA with 4.8 walks-per-nine innings. His strikeout numbers were good at 8.4 per-nine-innings, and his 4.36 FIP suggested perhaps he was a bit unlucky. But the inconsistency and lack of command was enough to scare most teams away, and he ended up signing with the Pirates on a one-year, $5 million deal.
Under the tutelage of Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage, considered one of the best in the business, Volquez turned his career around. He worked on altering his mechanics and throwing with more command.
Searage and Benedict identified two alterations: He needed to separate the ball from the glove earlier in his windup to keep his body on time, and he needed to keep his head on line toward home plate so he wouldn't fly open and miss his location. They also talked to him about improving his rhythm such that he could consistently fire the next pitch in 14 seconds....
"I decided to go more contact right now because I wanted to stay in the game longer," Volquez said. "I wanted to go deep in the game and give my team a chance to win. Before, I got a lot of trouble when I tried to strike out everybody and I started walking people."
The adjustments were a success. His strikeouts plummeted to a career-low 6.54 per-nine-innings, but his walks also dropped to a career-low of 3.32 per-nine-innings. Volquez put up a 1.0 fWAR season in Pittsburgh with a 3.04 ERA and 4.15 FIP. Over his last ten starts he was remarkable, giving up just ten runs for a 1.36 ERA.
That success carried over to Kansas City, where Volquez signed a two-year $20 million deal before last season. He responded with a 2.6 fWAR season, his best year since 2008. He has had just four starts so far in 2016, but he looks better than ever, with three wins and a 1.46 ERA with the lowest walk rate of his career. Since the start of the 2014 season, Volquez has a 3.19 ERA, 24th-best in all of baseball among starters.
|Edinson Volquez 2005-2013||4.75||4.36||8.4||4.8||0.9||5.49|
|Edinson Volquez 2014-2016||3.19||3.91||6.8||3.3||0.7||6.08|
Edinson has evolved over the years to become a junkball pitcher. His fastball usage has plummeted over the years, going from a pitch he would throw 52% of the time in his 17-win season of 2008, to just 10% of the time so far this year. Replacing the fastball has been the sinker. From 2005-2012, Volquez threw the sinker just 11.6% of the time. Since then, he has thrown it 37.5% of the time. Not only does he throw the sinker more, but he throws a hard sinker. Since 2014, only Jake Arrieta throws a harder sinker than Volquez, who averages 93.3 mph on the pitch.
Edinson Volquez Pitch Usage over Time (courtesy of Fangraphs)
However what is interesting about Volquez is that even though he has become more of a sinker ball pitcher, the sinker has not been a particularly effective pitch for him. Although the pitch has improved in effectiveness in each of the last three seasons, it is only in his few starts this year that it has become a plus pitch, and it still has room for improvement.
What has been effective has been his change up, ranked as the tenth-most effective in all of baseball since 2014. Last year, opponents hit just .194 against his change up, compared to .297 off his sinker, according to Brooks Baseball. The change up actually induces more ground balls than his sinker at this point. With the way it runs back in arm-side, you can see how it can be a problem for hitters.
Volquez also learned a knuckle-curve in Pittsburgh that is a vast improvement over the curveball he was throwing early in his career and has given him an effective repertoire to work with. The hard sinker has really replaced the fastball as a pitch to set the table. From there he can go with a change up, curveball, or sinker to finish hitters off, although the change up seems to induce the most whiffs.
Edinson Volquez has evolved significantly as a starter, going from a fastball pitcher who misses bats, but is maddeningly inconsistent and wild, to a junkballer who induces contact and can go deeper in games. He has outperformed his peripherals and FIP, so perhaps his performance the last few seasons will regress soon. But his development seems to work well with a terrific defense playing behind him. There was skepticism upon the Royals signing Edinson Volquez, but with a 2.6 fWAR season in the books, and a projected 2.0 fWAR season for this year according to Fangraphs, the Royals seem to be getting their money's worth with Steady Eddie.