Can Edinson Volquez Duplicate His 2014 Success?


Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When news broke yesterday that the Royals were signing Edinson Volquez to a two-year contract, many fans were not too enthused. While he did have a very good year in 2014, his career numbers aren’t terribly attractive, and he had a 5.71 ERA in 2013 and 2011. That, combined with $20 million in guaranteed money, led to all sorts of hot takes from dummies like this guy:

Right. As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve never been a big fan of Volquez. I don’t really like pitchers who consistently walk so many hitters, and we’ve seen what happens when things go poorly for him. It’s a risk that has some big-time downside, and I don’t think the upside really balances that out, based on who Volquez has been throughout his career.

But is the Volquez the Royals signed the Volquez of 2005-2013, or is the 2014 version his new normal?

I’m an open-minded person, and I wanted to see if there was anything that changed last season that could make his success sustainable. This was the first time since 2009 that Volquez produced an ERA better than his FIP, so one’s natural assumption would be that he’ll regress significantly in 2015. However, if there were things that changed in his repertoire or approach, perhaps he’ll be able to stave off some of that regression.

For the before-2014 numbers, I only looked at 2010-2013. Volquez became more of a groundball pitcher in 2010, and that four-year period is one that saw him struggle to perform at even a league average level. In 524.1 innings, he had a 4.99 ERA, with a strikeout rate of 20.8% and a walk rate of 12%(!). A pitcher who had those numbers just received $20 million. Or maybe it’s not the same pitcher.

During that span, Volquez threw his four pitches at a fairly similar frequency. (All pitch data below is from Brooks Baseball.)

Fastball – 24%
Sinker – 29%
Changeup – 24%
Curve – 23%

This is what his pitch mix looked like in 2014:

Fastball – 13%
Sinker – 42%
Changeup – 19%
Curve – 26%

There’s something to be said for keeping hitters guessing, but it appears the former approach was not working. He also altered his repertoire in different counts. His curve was his most-used pitch in two-strike counts, which makes sense considering it’s a very good out-pitch. One would assume he’d throw it more to same-side hitters, but that assumption would be wrong. Volquez threw the curve 38% of the time to lefties in two-strike counts, and 36% of the time to righties in those situations.

Oddly enough, he also threw more changeups to righties in two-strike counts than to lefties, so his approach definitely went against conventional wisdom. But I want to focus on the curve for a minute.

Throwing breaking balls to opposite-side hitters can be tricky, but if the ball is put in the right spot, it can be extremely effective. Prior to last season, Volquez left too many curves up and on the outer half of the plate, but he was much better about throwing it to the back foot this past season, as you can see in this fancy chart:

Granted, Volquez still allowed a .321 wOBA to lefties, but that was lower than his career split (.335). The fact that he was willing to throw the curve to lefties indicates he was likely very confident in that pitch. And for good reason. In 2014, opponents hit just .177 with a .260 slugging percentage against the curve. From 2010-2013, they hit .221 with a .320 slugging percentage. It was still an effective pitch, but he took it to another level in 2014.

Volquez generated fewer line drives and more popups with his curve last season, which is helpful for a pitcher who needs to limit hard contact. He also got a few more whiffs in 2014 (13.2%) than in 2010-2013 (11.6%), though it still wasn’t an elite pitch in that category. It’s tough to tell what caused the improved production, but there are some possible explanations.

His curve sat at 80.7 MPH, and while that seems kind of fast for a curveball, it was only up about half a mile per hour from the previous seasons, so it’s unlikely that’s the primary reason. He also didn’t get any more movement on the pitch, so that’s probably not it, either. Looking at the release points, however, we see a slight change.

It’s not that Volquez drastically altered his arm slot from where he threw the curve, but he did move his release points on the other pitches closer to the same point. It looks like all of Volquez’s pitches are coming out of the same slot, which makes it tougher to pick up what he’s throwing. It could follow then, that a mechanical adjustment helped him to last year’s success. But the mechanics may not have been solely about deception.

The Pirates identified some potential issues with Volquez’s delivery when they signed him before last season, suggesting his previous teams may have forced him to tweak too many things, which resulted in a rushed delivery, and his right arm dragging. Once Volquez was able to repeat his delivery on a consistent basis, his entire arsenal – and command – took a step forward. He threw more balls in the zone, which obviously led to fewer walks, and better results overall.

While he missed fewer bats and allowed more contact last year, the type of contact he allowed was significantly better. From 2010-2013, Volquez allowed a line drive rate of 20.4%, fly ball rate of 29.4%, and infield fly ball rate of 6.5%. That, combined with his groundballing ways, produced a BABIP of .307. In 2014, he allowed a line drive rate of just 16.8%, fly ball rate of 32.9%, and infield fly ball rate of 7.5%. All of that weaker contact (along with the Pirates terrific infield defense) helped Volquez hold opponents to a .263 average on balls in play.

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So if we are to say what was the biggest driver behind Volquez’s renaissance last season, the main theory likely comes down to his improved mechanics, which allowed him to repeat his delivery, throw more strikes, display better command, and be more effective with his curveball. He also changed his pitch mix to focus more on his sinker and curve, without backing away from his changeup too often.

If his mechanics truly were out of whack before last season, and if that was the cause of his success, then it seems safe to say he could at least replicate his 2014 numbers to some extent. I think some regression is inevitable no matter what, but it’s not impossible for him to be an above average pitcher again next year. Dave Eiland is basically a wizard, the Royals have a great defense behind him, and Kauffman Stadium should be beneficial.

By now, you probably think I’ve convinced myself that this signing is a great idea. After all, I’ve suggested the Kendrys Morales and Alex Rios deals could work out well, and they’re coming off of bad seasons. Volquez was actually good last year! Unfortunately, I still don’t love it.

It’s true that Eiland could help Volquez, but the Pirates’ coaching staff is one of the best in the league at helping pitchers find more success, so I don’t know how much more the Royals can do in that department, other than trying to make sure his delivery is consistent. But even that may not be enough.

The Royals do have a great defense, but much of their value is in the outfield. Good outfield defense is still a good thing for groundball pitchers, but the infield defense is a bit more important, and the Royals are not quite as elite in that department. They’re still very good, to be sure, but I don’t think they’ll help Volquez as much as the Pirates and their shifting did. His BABIP will almost certainly increase.

As for the stadium, PNC Park is much more of a pitchers’ park than the K, both overall, and in the dinger department. Volquez had a home run per fly ball rate of 9.1% in 2014, and that was with a home park that ranked 29th in baseball in home run park factors, according to FanGraphs, and 28th according to ESPN. That dinger rate will likely increase next year.

There’s also the bit about Volquez moving to the American League, where he’ll be facing 9 batters instead of 8 batters and a pitcher holding a bat. Making that transition is likely going to hurt his peripherals, which could very easily result in worse results.

Plus, Volquez had a lot of success with Russell Martin catching him last year, and Martin is one of the best receiving catchers in the game. Salvador Perez is arguably one of the best overall catchers in the league, but framing is probably the weakest part of his game. Volquez may not get as many extra strikes without Martin behind the plate.

I love that Volquez has been able to maintain his fastball velocity, and he should be able to eat some innings at the back-end of the Royals rotation. I can absolutely see a scenario in which this deal works out for the Royals, with Volquez slotting in nicely to the 4th spot in the rotation. But color me skeptical of this deal being a huge success. I’m not sure what color skeptical is, maybe beige? Taupe? I digress.

There are so many red flags in his profile that indicate those innings may not even be league average. There’s still some value in getting innings out of a starter, but it’s always better if those innings are good innings. I really want to be wrong about this, and perhaps the changes we saw in 2014 will carry over. Even if he does stick with those changes, though, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be able to produce the same results in a more difficult league. I’m hoping he can at least be an adequate fifth starter, but the massive downside potential cannot be ignored. The Royals simply have to try and hold off that downside for two more years.