Edinson Volquez and the quest for control

What originally started as an exploration into Edinson Volquez’s inability to tap his true potential, quickly devolved into dwelling about the state of the Padres’ rotation as Casey Kelly became the latest to succumb to ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery. That stark realization led to dreading about the potential No. 1 starter, which came full circle when Volquez was named the Padres’ Opening Day starter yesterday. It’s a vicious shame spiral.

Not unlike the Padres’ list of Opening Day starters, Volquez is yet another name in a long line of middling Major League talent. But it wasn’t always that way.

At one point he was considered one of Texas’ top-rated prospects, an integral part of the Rangers’ DVD trio of top pitching prospects (John Danks, Volquez, & Thomas Diamond). Drafted out of the Dominican Republic in 2001 under a falsified identity (Julio Reyes) and age (17), the 18-year-old Volquez spent several years as a sleeper prospect who reveled in the comparisons he drew to Pedro Martinez  – another eclectic personality with a devastating fastball/change-up combination.

It wasn’t until 2005 when Volquez had his breakout minor league campaign, where across three levels he lowered his BB/9 for the third straight season, culminating in a disappointing late-season audition with the big league squad.

Year

Age

G

GS

IP

ERA

WHIP

BB/9

SO/9

SO/BB

2003

19

10

4

27.0

4.00

1.296

3.7

9.3

2.55

2004

20

29

23

127.1

3.82

1.209

2.9

7.6

2.63

2005

21

22

22

127.1

4.10

1.202

2.0

9.0

4.41

His follow-up season was largely a disappointment, and he was shut down in June of 2009 before undergoing Tommy John Surgery. While rehabbing, Volquez was suspended 50 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. A couple seasons later, he finds himself in San Diego.When the DVD trio dismantled, Volquez found himself in Cincinnati – the prize piece that netted Josh Hamilton. Both immediately benefited greatly from the change of scenery, as Volquez had a career year, earned an All-Star berth, and finished fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. But even Volquez’s breakout campaign in 2008 was a mixed bag, as his first half and second half results varied greatly as opponents started making better contact and elevating the ball.

His performance didn’t go unnoticed. Baseball America named him the Rangers’ top prospect for the 2006 season, proclaiming his fastball and change-up to be the best in the system. They went on to say that Volquez was “aggressive and comes right after hitters,” and that he had “little problems throwing strikes as a pro.” However, they did also highlight the negatives, saying that his breaking ball was little more than a show-me offering than an actual out pitch and that a tendency to overthrow his fastball upon promotion hurt his fastball command.

After all this, it almost seems fitting that Volquez has been anointed the Padres’ showcase starter for the second straight year. Between the tempered enthusiasm of a once-rising star,  injury history, PED suspension, and multiple name changes, Volquez is the perfect representation of what the organization has toiled through the past couple seasons.

The infuriating combination of top-level talent with lackluster results is what makes Volquez a curious case. If we tally the totals starting when PITCHf/x data went live in 2007, there are only 11 qualified starting pitchers who have averaged 93.5 MPH or better on their fastball and were active on a MLB roster last season:

Name

IP

K%

BB%

ERA

FBv

wFB

fWAR

J. Beckett

1888.0

22.2%

7.3%

3.92

93.7

76.7

39.9

J. Verlander

1553.2

22.7%

7.3%

3.40

94.9

88.7

39.3

F. Hernandez

1620.1

22.2%

7.2%

3.22

94.1

46.0

38.3

A. Burnett

2115.1

21.3%

9.5%

4.04

94.1

-25.6

35.5

J. Johnson

898.0

22.1%

7.9%

3.14

93.8

50.0

22.4

U. Jimenez

1092.0

20.9%

10.5%

4.03

94.8

10.6

21.8

E. Jackson

1226.0

17.7%

8.9%

4.35

94.1

-79.5

16.8

M. Scherzer

785.2

24.4%

7.9%

3.92

93.6

-12.2

15.4

D. Price

776.2

22.4%

8.1%

3.18

94.6

60.6

15.3

B. Morrow

529.2

24.8%

10.0%

4.20

93.6

-0.3

10.0

E. Volquez

676.0

21.8%

12.3%

4.46

93.6

-34.8

7.0

As has often been the case when discussing his failures, Volquez’s control becomes the biggest factor. While his fastball velocity (FBv) was among the league’s best from 2007-2012, yet its overall value (wFB, or fastball runs above average) was among the league’s worst. Last year, his walk rate of 13.1% last year was an MLB-worst and, at least among his flame-throwing contemporaries, it renders his fastball near worthless. While his change-up is still a plus-pitch, there’s not enough diversity in his arsenal nor consistency in his fastball to add up to a complete package.

Volquez, during his minor league career and in short stints at the big league level, has at times flashed excellent command along with his ability to miss bats. So what’s changed? Why the downhill trajectory? One could argue he simply failed to develop further following Tommy John Surgery.

Or, perhaps when he was asked to expand his repertoire from the electric fastball and knockout change-up, it diminished the effectiveness of his overall arsenal. Sure, he has more toys to play with, but while the two-seamer dips and the curveball dies, they are showcase options that aren’t generating a lot of swings & misses or strikes.

There may not be a simple answer as stuff doesn’t always translate to production.

While the stuff is certainly electric and he’s proven to be able to contribute at the highest level, one has to consider – even with his ability to eat innings – what Volquez’s long-term prospects as a starter might be. There’s value there, the question is how it can be utilized to minimize his flaws.

As FanGraphs recently explored, the Padres went one step further trying to tailor his arsenal to the ballpark he was pitching in – using his homer-prone fastball more in his homer-suppressing home ballpark, with his sinker as his showcase pitch on the road. The results were, well, lopsided:

In a way, the strategy worked. Beyond Volquez’s home effectiveness, his sinker was able to keep the ball on the ground on the road — he induced twice as many groundouts as flyouts and hitters managed just two home runs off his sinkers. But it was hit hard nonetheless — Volquez allowed 17 singles and 12 doubles out of the 95 sinkers put in play in road parks, good for a .337 average (.316 BABIP) and a .547 slugging percentage against.

When he did go to the fastball, it was utterly crushed. Not as many singles found their way through — just nine out of 64 put in play — but Volquez allowed five home runs and four doubles off fastballs on the road, or nearly one every seven times he threw the pitch. All-in-all, the pitch allowed a .281 average despite just a .219 BABIP — compared to a .318 mark off his fastball since 2007 — and a .578 slugging percentage. Volquez is just one example, but he illustrates beautifully how far park effects can reach.

Can they continue to minimize the damage in this manner going into year two? Well, manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley wouldn’t be very good at their jobs if they kept things constant. After all, Volquez  is only a couple seasons removed from a league-leading 20.7% HR/FB (min. 100 IP) and there’s a trend of falling behind early and opponents making fewer mistakes.

Year

Swing%

Contact%

F-Strike%

SwStr%

2010

42.9%

69.0%

57.1%

13.0%

2011

44.3%

74.3%

54.4%

10.9%

2012

41.1%

74.2%

53.0%

10.1%

With such a wide discrepancy in the results and, as Geoff Young previously explored with regards to Clayton Richard, the fences moving in, the best approach may continue to be to accept Volquez as he is – a pitcher with great stuff who suffers greatly due to his wildness. To that end, perhaps the only control the Padres can hope for out of Edinson Volquez isn’t in how he attacks the strike zone, but in how they can maximize output through efficiently managing his match-ups.

You are encouraged to comment using an exisitng Twitter, Facebook, or Google account. Upvote comments you find helpful, and only downvote comments that do not belong. The downvote is not a 'disagree' button.

  • I took my daughter to see Volquez pitch against the Astros last July. He pitched a CG/SO and allowed only 1 hit. He K’d 5 and walked 3. The one hit was a little infield dribbler that Volquez couldn’t make a play on in time. He threw 117 pitches and finished the game in just over 2 hours. I couldn’t believe how close the daughter was to seeing the first no-hitter in Padres history. I was also amazed at how quickly Volquez finished a game. Of course, it was against the Astros.