Due to the untimely death of ace Jose Fernandez and because of the ineffectiveness of Andrew Cashner, Justin Nicolino and others at the anchor position of the rotation, the Marlins have some work to do with their rotation this offseason. They began that work on Friday when they signed free agent Edinson Volquez to a two-year, $22 million contract.
There’s no getting around it. Edinson Volquez wasn’t very effective last year. And that is putting it very nicely. Without using any more adjectives to describe Volquez, let’s just let his stats speak for themselves: In 2016, Volquez went 10-11 in 34 starts and 189.1 IP. His 5.37 ERA was the second highest in all of MLB. It came by way of a .282 BAA, fifth highest in baseball and a 1.55 WHIP, second highest only to James Shields. Only Shields eclipsed Volquez for the dubious honor of most earned runs given up. The 113 surrendered by Volquez were a career high. Though there is something to be said for the fact that the damage he allotted came as a result of a heightened .319 BABIP and the fact that his defense didn’t help him at all but moreso hindered him as proven by his 4.57 FIP, Volquez was a shadow of the pitcher he was just from 2014-2015.
In those two seasons combined, Volquez was a quality asset, holding down a 3.30 ERA in 393 IP, making him the 25th best pitcher in the game in that regard. It came by way of a respectable 1.27 WHIP, a .238 BAA which was 32nd lowest in baseball and by way of a 75.2% LOB%, which was amongst the game’s top 30. In both ’14 and ’15, Volquez was an integral part of teams that each reached the postseason. In the latter of those years, he was arguably the world champion Royals’ best postseason arm posting a 3.85 ERA in 28.2 innings, including 12 innings with an even 3.00 ERA in the World Series.
So what happened to Volquez to cause him to go from being a guy who contributed nearly three more wins to his team than the average major league pitcher in two straight seasons (2.5 WAR in both 2014 and 2015) to a guy who cost his team nearly a full one full win (-0.8 WAR in 2016) over the course of just 162 games?
Volquez is traditionally a three pitch pitcher. He owns a straight and narrow mid-90s sinker with very little movement, a debilitating out-pitch changeup and a curveball.
The sinker has almost always been subpar and more of a setup pitch. Over the course of the last six years, the best value the pitch has held has been just -0.2 RAA. In other words, it was slightly worse than a league average pitch. That was in 2012. In every other season from 2011 until now, the pitch has been much worse than league average. Over the last three seasons, the pitch has been a total of 31.1 runs below league average. Volquez has a fourth pitch which is technically classified as a four-seamer that he throws interchangeably with the sinker. but in similar fashion to the sinker, it holds very little value. It has only once been a better than league average pitch over the course of those same past six seasons.
The changeup is by far Volquez’s best offering. Even in a career worst season for him ERA and WHIP wise last year, it was still the 11th best changeup in the game, clocking in at 5.2 RAA. In 2015, the Volquez change was the even better. With a value of a whopping 11.4 RAA, it was the sixth best offering of its type in baseball and the fourth best in the American League. The company around him on the pitch value leaderboard that year — Greinke, Sale, Hamels, etc. — spoke for itself. To round out the three-year time frame we are mostly discussing here, in 2014, the changeup was a bit less valuable for Volquez but, probably due to the success of his fastball which he threw 18.4% of the time, he threw the changeup a lot less. It accounted for just 18% of his total pitches thrown, a career low. This stands a good reason why Volquez didn’t have as good a feel for the pitch as he had both earlier and later in his career. Still, it was an above average pitch for Volquez, ranking at 1.3 RAA. Between 2014 and this past season, Volquez’s 18.5 RAA changeup has been the 12th best changeup in baseball.
So far, we have a guy who has one (or two, if you count the four-seamer as a separate pitch) very mediocre to bad pitches and one very good pitch. Unfortunately, that isn’t going to get it done for a big league starter of any type, let alone one who hopes to be affective on the mound. A second plus pitch needs to be in his arsenal. Thus we arrive at what has either made or broken seasons for Volquez — his temperamental curveball. Again, we go back to the 2014-2015 time frame when Volquez was very effective. Taking a look at the total pitch value on his curve over that span, it was nearly as good as his changeup. At 10.3 total RAA (6.7 in 2014 and 3.6 in 2015), the Volquez breaking ball was the tenth best of its type in MLB, seventh best in the AL. Looking at the pitch itself, it’s easy to see where the value came from.
Looking at batted ball stats on the pitch using PitchFX, we find that amongst 1,558 curves thrown between 2014 and 2015, Volquez gave up just 70 hits including five homers. The rate at which opponents successfully hit the pitch? A dazzling .193.
Now let’s fast-forward to last season.
Ouch. Very ouch. As you can see, the pitch has evidently lost virtually all of its downward movement and bite. Instead, it flattened out and caught tons more of the strikezone. In just one season, the batting average against the pitch rose from the aforementioned collective .193 in the two years previous to .274. Where hitters touched him up for just 22 total XBHs on curveballs from ’14-’15, they got 17 off of it in 2016. The problem with the pitch wasn’t velocity. In fact, the 80.2 average velo on the pitch was right in line with its average velo in the two seasons prior. Consequently, it was location which stemmed from a faulty release point and arm angle.
Comparing the two versions of the pitch, the good version from ’14-’15 and the bad one from last year, Volquez appeared to be releasing the ball much later into his stride last year and not at the advantageous apex of his delivery as he was a little earlier in his career. This led to the swing-and-miss pitch turning into a swing-and-hit pitch by way of the ball losing its downward bite and catching far too much of the strikezone. For proof of this, we can refer to the 80.1% contact rate on the pitch and the 61.7% contact rate on curves out of the zone. Both were Volquez’s worst percentages posted since he was first learning the pitch as a second year player in 2006. As a result, batters began waiting out Volquez’s quality changeup, sitting on his mediocre at best sinker, laying off the few good curves he threw and taking advantage of the many more bad ones. All in all, it resulted in Volquez, who was not too long ago a fantastic middle of the rotation starter, becoming one of the worst starters in baseball.
So the question is now that Volquez has a new home, can he reclaim the glue that holds his rotation together by successfully rebuilding his curveball? By giving him a $22 million contract at 32 years old despite the egg he just laid on the field last season, the Marlins obviously seem to think so. And they have good reason to. A Volquez signing in Miami means that he will be reunited with Marlins’ VP of pitching development Jim Benedict. Benedict has a familiar task ahead of him: Fixing Edinson Volquez. Benedict, known as the pitcher whisperer, was successful in doing so for the first time in 2014 when Volquez came to the Pirates. A year after Volquez’s curveball ranked as one of the worst in baseball with a -9.5 RAA, Benedict turned it into the pitch that has been revered throughout this article. In addition, Benedict molded the Volquez changeup, which was nearly as bad as his curve in 2013 (-8.1 RAA), and made it one of the best in the game. So if anyone can fix Volquez (again), Benedict is the man.
While the Marlins could have gotten likely similar value for a cheaper price by signing Doug Fister (whom the Marlins may still be a player on regardless of this signing) and while the surplus could have gone to some of their many arbitration eligible players, Volquez is a guy who is still low risk, high reward. Should he not work out in the rotation, a move to the bullpen and a re-introduction of David Phelps to the rotation could be in the cards. In the twilight of his career, Volquez should at least be able to perform well in that capacity.