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Edinson Volquez’s poor performance is not the result of decreased ability

He’s almost the same pitcher.

Kansas City Royals v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

With the trade deadline passing and no trade of Edinson Volquez coming to pass, it is fair to wonder what the Royals should do now with him. Volquez holds a $10 million mutual option in his contract with a $3 million buyout. Given the state of the starting pitching free agent market, headlined by such luminaries as Jeremy Hellickson and Andrew Cashner, the prevailing thought is that Volquez will decline the mutual option. The Royals can make the qualifying offer to Volquez, which is going to be about $16.7 million. Max’s article linked above discussed the question of whether or not to extend the qualifying offer.

Here, what I will attempt to give you is more information to make a decision if you haven’t already.

Volquez’s performance has dipped. That’s for sure. His ERA / FIP / xFIP of 4.99 / 4.43 / 4.40 is mostly not good. However, consider that the offensive environment has changed this year. Adjusted for league and park, Volquez’s numbers look like this: ERA- of 117, FIP- of 105, and xFIP- of 103. His peripherals suggest something closer to average than his ERA.

Compared to last year, Volquez is really just about the same dang pitcher. His strikeout rate is down just a little bit, but his walk rate is about the same. His batted ball distribution reflects more ground balls, which is good, and a higher HR/FB, which is bad. His HR/FB though is around league average. His soft / medium / hard hit rates reflect more soft contact than last year. His plate discipline metrics have been about the same.

His velocity has barely moved. The movement of his pitches, both horizontal and vertical, has barely moved. His usage rates have barely moved (overall - there’s a slight difference based on the situation). The whiff rate on his changeup has gone down, so maybe there’s an issue there - for some reason, Volquez has shifted has changeup usage to throw it less against LHH and more against RHH. More curveball against LHH and less curveball against RHH. That usage change seems a bit counterintuitive. Perhaps that’s an area to tweak?

Another area that might be tweakable is Volquez’s fastball location. There’s a difference between 2015 and 2016, and it’s pretty stark. From Baseball Savant:

2015 against LHH (sinker + 2 seamer)

2016 against LHH (sinker + 2 seamer)

There’s clearly a big change in location. Volquez has not lost command of the pitch, but the change in location suggests maybe it’s out over a hittable part of the plate more often. He’s definitely able to hit that front-hip spot against LHH, which really isn’t a bad place to put a sinker. It can freeze LHH sometimes. However, Volquez does get a ton of run on his sinker, so maybe he is sometimes letting that pitch get too far over the plate.

Volquez’s increase in GB% can be seen right here in his decision to locate his sinker more down in the zone. Normally, that would be a good thing, right? With the increase in offense, there’s not a good way to tell if keeping his sinker up would be a good decision or not. Would Volquez’s sinker get hit worse if he went back to 2015’s location? I don’t know.

Against RHH, Volquez has shifted more toward the inside part of the plate with his fastball instead of out over the plate. With the way the pitch runs, last year the pitch started on the outside corner and ran over the plate. This year, it is starting in the middle and running toward the inside part of the plate. Perhaps righties are turning on the pitch easier? Maybe it’s easier to separate the changeup and fastball with the slight change in location? The changeup is buried under the zone more this year than last year, so maybe there’s less of an interplay between the changeup and fastball? It’s hard to say.

What is true is that these location changes and usage changes look intentional. The heat maps are fairly well-concentrated around their new spaces, so it’s not like Volquez has lost command of these pitches.

Another big piece of Volquez’s decline starts with his left-on-base rate of 67.6 percent, well below the MLB average of 73 percent. This discrepancy usually shows up when looking at splits between bases empty and men on base states.

Indeed, Volquez allows a .240 / .315 / .414 batting line with the bases empty, which is right around MLB average. However, his line with men on base - .312 / .380 / .419, well above league average. It’s a similar story with men in scoring position.

This type of split is not something that is consistent year to year. Last year Volquez stifled production with men on base. This year he’s not. It fluctuates and can’t be expected to continue in the manner it has. This is partially why his ERA is well above his peripherals.

To tie this all together, Volquez’s decline in performance can be attributed to a couple things, two more certain than the third:

  1. The overall increase in offense across all of baseball
  2. Some rotten luck with men on base
  3. Odd tweaks in usage and location that appear to be intentional

Number one affects everyone. Number two should go away. Number three, which has at least in part resulted in more ground balls, should theoretically help offset number one. But maybe there have been unintended consequences in the interplay of his repertoire. Fortunately, number three is fixable. The question is whether or not that fix will lead to better results. They could, but they may not. Hopefully the Royals and Volquez can figure out the answer.