Why Starting Edinson Volquez Isn’t A Bad Idea by Tony Blengino September 30, 2014 The marathon regular season is over, and the middle-distance sprint that is the playoffs is about to begin. The Pirates will host the Giants on Wednesday in the NL Wild Card game, and now that the dust has settled, it appears that righty Edinson Volquez is the Bucs’ choice to take on Giants’ ace southpaw Madison Bumgarner. Many have pointed to Volquez’ relatively lofty 4.15 FIP as a rationale to bypass him in favor of other options – my gut is that the Pirates have chosen the right guy. Volquez, now 31, has had quite the whirlwind career. He was considered a gem of the Rangers’ minor league system for quite awhile – he, John Danks and Thomas Diamond were at point expected to cure the longstanding starting pitching ills of the Texas organization. He struggled at the major league level with the Rangers for small parts of three seasons, posting a 3-11 record, and was then dispatched to Cincinnati following the 2007 season in a rather interesting trade that netted the Rangers Josh Hamilton. In the short-term, this deal benefited both teams immensely, as Volquez had a breakout season in his first campaign with the Reds, going 17-6, 3.21, and making the NL All Star team. That was as good as it got in Cincinnati. He never again qualified for an ERA title as a Red, enduring three injury-plagued seasons before finishing 2011 just strong enough that the Padres accepted him as a main cog – along with prospects Yonder Alonso, Brad Boxberger and Yasmani Grandal – in the blockbuster Mat Latos deal. His tenure in San Diego was rather unpleasant – he led the NL in walks in 2012 and in earned runs allowed in a 2013 season split between the Padres and Dodgers. There was no trade involved this time – he was actually released by the Padres in late August. His raw 2013 numbers were pretty grisly – a 5.71 ERA overall, and an awful 6.01 mark as a Padre. Sure, his 4.24 FIP was a lot more palatable, but this guy got released, and by a subpar ballclub at that. Enter the Pittsburgh Pirates in the offseason, signing Volquez to a one-year, $5M deal, and inserting him into the starting rotation. What did they see that no one else had? Was Volquez as bad as he appeared in 2013? Is he good as his glittering 2014 3.04 ERA? Let’s take a look at Volquez’ outcome frequency and relative production by BIP type data compared to MLB average for 2013 and 2014, both before and after adjustment for context. First, the frequency info: FREQ – 2013 Volquez % REL PCT K 18.3% 96 36 BB 9.9% 130 97 POP 5.5% 70 15 FLY 26.4% 93 41 LD 23.9% 112 85 GB 44.2% 104 52 FREQ – 2014 Volquez % REL PCT K 17.3% 85 17 BB 8.8% 116 84 POP 5.8% 75 23 FLY 26.8% 96 51 LD 18.6% 90 7 GB 48.8% 112 90 Volquez begins from a very difficult starting point – he’s a relatively low K (K rate percentile ranks of 36 and 17 in 2013 and 2014, respectively), high BB (97 and 84) guy. That’s a pretty tough road to success – such a pitcher must manage batted ball contact extremely well to have a chance. There are two other very significant changes in Volquez’ frequency profile from 2013 to 2014. First, and less importantly for the long haul, his liner rate has cratered this season, from a percentile rank of 85 in 2013 to 7 in 2014. Such rates fluctuate much more than other BIP type rates, and Volquez’ have been all over the board throughout his career. On the other hand, his grounder rate has spiked significantly from a 52 percentile rank in 2013 to 90 in 2014. His 2013 mark was a career low – for Volquez to have any chance to excel, he must keep the ball on the ground a very high percentage of the time. Let’s now take a look at the production by BIP type allowed by Volquez, both before and after adjustment for context: PROD – 2013 Volquez AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA TRU ERA FLY 0.396 0.964 178 88 LD 0.595 0.833 87 102 GB 0.253 0.275 114 80 ALL BIP 0.347 0.553 118 90 ALL PA 0.276 0.348 0.440 121 97 5.71 4.69 3.76 PROD – 2014 Volquez AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA TRU ERA FLY 0.230 0.581 65 89 LD 0.670 0.854 99 103 GB 0.185 0.207 60 87 ALL BIP 0.280 0.427 74 90 ALL PA 0.226 0.295 0.344 84 99 3.04 3.16 3.72 The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. In the three right-most columns, his actual ERA, calculated component ERA based on actual production allowed, and “tru” ERA, which is adjusted for context, are all presented. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation. Lots of interesting stuff here. Let’s start at the end on this one. Volquez’ “tru” ERA is almost exactly the same in 2013 (3.76) and 2014 (3.72). Kudos to the Pirates for buying low on a MLB average starting pitcher coming off of an apparently terrible season. Just take a look at the production allowed by Volquez on fly balls in 2013 – .396 AVG-.964 SLG, for 178 REL PRD before adjustment for context. A closer look reveals that he yielded an awful lot of cheap homers, many of them at home in a season in which the Padres brought in their outfield fences by a significant margin. After adjustment for context, Volquez’ 2013 ADJ PRD on fly balls plunged down to 88. There’s more……even though Volquez allowed above average production on grounders in 2013 (.253 AVG-.275 SLG, 114 REL PRD), after adjustment for context, his grounder ADJ PRD plunged to 80, the very lowest among NL ERA qualifiers. Basically, he allowed the weakest grounders of any NL starter. The disconnect between his actual production allowed on all BIP (118 REL PRD) and his 90 ADJ PRD after adjustment for context was by far the largest among NL ERA qualifiers. Volquez was way better than his 2013 ERA of 5.71, and was even better than his 2013 FIP of 4.24. So that is what the Pirates were buying low on in the free agent market. They brought him to a bigger ballpark, with a superior team defense, and watched context work its wonders with virtually the same exact pitcher in 2014. He has allowed relatively meager actual fly ball production (.230 AVG-.581 SLG, 65 REL PRD), but after adjustment for context, his 2014 89 ADJ PRD figure basically matches 2013’s 88. As we saw in the frequency table, Volquez is inducing many more grounders in 2014, and he’s allowed a modest .185 AVG-.207 SLG (60 REL PRD) on them. Even though they’ve been hit a bit harder (87 ADJ PRD after adjustment for context) in 2014, this is still a net plus. On all BIP, Volquez’ ADJ PRD of 90 is unchanged since 2013, though there is a dramatic difference between the actual production allowed in 2013 (118 REL PRD) and 2014 (74). No, Volquez is not nearly as good as his 3.04 ERA, but isn’t nearly as mediocre as his 4.15 FIP, either. He is a quality contact manager, pitching in a big ballpark, with a good defense behind him. A very wise investment of $5M, in other words. If the Bucs had their choice, Francisco Liriano or perhaps Gerrit Cole would be taking the mound on Wednesday, but they pitched this weekend in the club’s unsuccessful pursuit of the NL Central crown. The fact that Volquez is next in the queue is one reason, but only a small one, that he should get the nod. He was the only starter who took the ball every fifth day – all season – for the Pirates. Only two of their starters, Volquez and Liriano, qualified for the ERA title, and the latter only did so by 1/3 of an inning, with 30 1/3 fewer innings pitched than Volquez. He has been their constant, the guy who has gotten them to this point, and with no clearly superior alternative qualitatively, he should be the guy ahead of Jeff Locke and Vance Worley, who both of course will be rested and ready in the event the starter falters early. Then there’s the quality of his recent performances. Since allowing 8 earned runs in 2 1/3 innings on June 18, Volquez has posted a 1.85 ERA. Yes, it’s ERA, but whether or not that’s adjusted for any sort of context, that’s one really impressive number. He has allowed more than three earned runs in exactly one of his 17 starts over that span. Any way you slice it, the odds are extremely high that he will keep the Pirates in the game on Wednesday – and given the way the Pirates’ pitching staff is constructed, without a hammer ace – that is really all they can ask. In the big picture, the Giants may be a slight favorite on Wednesday, as Madison Bumgarner is a better alternative than any of the Pirates’ starters. Though the Pirates didn’t get here on starting pitcher star power, they did get here in large part due to a well-conceived overall run prevention strategy. They play in a big yard, with quality defenders dotting the field. They made a key midseason adjustment, sacrificing the power potential of Pedro Alvarez for the better all-around game of Josh Harrison. The entire staff’s performance has surged since that move, and it’s not by accident. The Pirates are playing on Wednesday because of the contributions of many, and Edinson Volquez is one of the many unheralded contributors who deserve their just due.