Pittsburgh has developed a reputation in recent seasons for being a great place for previously successful pitchers that have fallen on hard times to resurrect their careers. It began in 2012 with A.J. Burnett, and continued last season with Francisco Liriano. In both cases the Pirates identified talented, yet struggling pitchers, with the advanced metrics they felt made them strong candidates for a bounce back season. A combination of a favorable home park for pitchers, good coaching capable of resolving mechanical issues, and an adjustment in pitch selection to complement an organizational wide defensive philosophy, helped put Burnett and Liriano back on track. In 2014 the Pirates will try to repeat that formula with their newest reclamation project, Edinson Volquez.
Volquez certainly fits the description of a talented underachiever. In 2008 he put up a 17-6 record with a 3.21 ERA. Since then he has been a sub-par pitcher. He hit rock bottom in 2013, posting a brutal 5.71 ERA . Poor control has hurt him his entire career. But Volquez’s peripherals indicate he is a better pitcher than the numbers show. For as bad as his ERA was last season his xFIP was a respectable 4.07. His profile in recent seasons matches closely with Burnett and Liriano in the years leading up to their joining the Pirates. The following table compares the three pitchers in the three seasons that preceded the Pirates acquiring them.
As you can see Volquez compares very favorably to both Burnett and Liriano. In fact, he sported a better xFIP and strikeout rate than Burnett. But for all the things these three pitchers have in common there is one thing that Volquez is missing. That thing is time. Specifically, time in spring training to work with noted pitching guru Jim Benedict. What is often forgotten in Burnett and Liriano’s return to dominance is that during their first season with the Bucs they both spent time in extended spring training nursing non-throwing arm injuries. This afforded them an opportunity to work several extra weeks with Jim Benedict to iron out existing mechanical issues in their deliveries. This was especially impactful for Liriano. The Pirates admitted as much.
“One of the big things that broke right for him is that, because of the injury. The changes that he made — we couldn’t have done that if he’d been in big league camp. But because he spent so much time in extended spring training, he had time to get his delivery right and build his arm up slowly.”
- Jim Benedict, a special assistant to Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and a former minor league pitching coordinator who gets involved in special player-development and pitching-delivery projects such as Liriano.
Much like Francisco Liriano, Edinson Volquez’s most pressing issue is his erratic control. Statistically his control numbers are even worse than Liriano’s. Only one starting pitcher over the past five seasons has a worse BB/9 rate than Volquez. That unflattering designation belongs to Jonathan Sanchez. Yikes! So the question is will six weeks be long enough to correct the control issues with Volquez? The Pirates felt Liriano needed more time, and we know it wasn’t enough time to save Jonathan Sanchez. Of course if Sanchez didn’t waste so much time taking selfies just maybe the results would have been better.