Edinson Volquez & Pickoffs: Replacing James Shields Isn’t Easy


Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

No one would argue that James Shields didn’t have a huge impact on the Kansas City Royals in the last two seasons. Obviously he was a great pitcher, throwing 455.2 innings with a 3.18 ERA and nearly 7.5 strikeouts per 9 innings. He also helped out several other pitchers, most notably Danny Duffy, who credits Shields with his emergence last season.

But there was something else Shields did extremely well that the Royals may miss this season, and that’s eliminating runners via the pickoff.

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Shields has been one of the best in baseball at getting outs with his pickoff move, collecting 7 of them in his time in Kansas City. Only the Braves’ Julio Teheran had more during that time. In his career, Shields has 30 pickoffs, including a ridiculous 12 of them in 2011 when he was in Tampa Bay. The Royals loved having Shields’ ability to erase baserunners that way.

The man taking Shields’ spot in the rotation, Edinson Volquez, is slightly less prolific in the pickoff department. In his 10-year career, Volquez has picked off 1 runner. That’s one, as in, one single runner, in more than 1,000 innings of work. Shields and Volquez are at the extreme ends of the pickoff spectrum.

Plus, it was a pickoff that turned into a caught stealing, so it’s tough to give him full credit. Considering how many baserunners he’s allowed in his career, that statistic is even more mind-boggling. You’d think at least a couple of guys would slip in wet dirt, or trip over a shoelace, or something. He’s allowed almost 1,300 guys to stand on first base, and he’s only picked off 1 of them. I’m not even mad. That’s amazing.

To make matters worse, Volquez has typically been pretty easy to steal on, allowing a stolen base percentage of 74% in his career. Opponents have swiped 105 bags when Volquez was on the hill, 36 more than Shields has allowed in his career, and Shields allowed them at just a 64% clip. That’s a significant dropoff.

However, things aren’t all bad. Volquez collected that one pickoff last year, and he drastically reduced his stolen bases allowed rate, all the way down to 56%. Opponents only attempted 16 stolen bases against Volquez in 2014, after attempting at least 26 stolen bases against him in each of the previous two seasons. Some of that probably had to do with having Russell Martin behind the plate, as Martin threw out 39% of would-be base stealers last year.

Salvador Perez isn’t quite as adept at throwing out baserunners as Martin, but he’s still above average, and he’s a pickoff expert himself, collecting 7 of them last season. That can help absolutely help a pitcher.

It’s also possible Volquez gained some quickness to the plate after working on his mechanics with Pirates’ pitching coach Ray Searage. If that’s the case, I wouldn’t be too surprised to see Volquez limiting stolen bases again this season.

There’s one other thing that helps Volquez eliminate baserunners, although it doesn’t have anything to do with pickoffs: double plays.

Volquez is a ground ball pitcher, and he’s been able to use that to get rid of the guys who reach base against him. In 2014, he induced 18 double plays. As I’ve mentioned before, the Pirates have a terrific infield defense, and they use shifts very aggressively, which was a big benefit for Volquez. But the Royals also are solid defensively, and they use shifts as often as anyone, so he may not lose too many potential double plays in his move to Kansas City.

It’s going to be impossible for one pitcher to replace Shields in the Royals rotation, and that goes beyond just his pitching prowess. He was a pickoff savant, and there’s no question the team will miss that ability this season. They will still have Duffy, who had the second-most pickoffs in baseball last year despite pitching 149 innings, but Volquez is a big step down from Shields in regards to pickoffs.

If the 2014 version of Volquez is the real Volquez, though, he may be able to keep runners from stealing many bases, and his groundballing ways should also help limit the number of guys getting to second base. That will be important for Volquez, because when runners don’t make it to second, they probably won’t make it home. That’s a great thing for a pitcher.

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