Revitalized Volquez ready to write next chapter
Righty could be Pirates' latest successful reclamation project with return to form
PITTSBURGH -- Had Frank Sinatra ever been inclined (and alive) enough to sing about San Diego's Petco Park and its effect on pitchers, he might have been compelled to croon, "If you can't make it there, you can't make it anywhere."
How, then, do we explain Edinson Volquez?
If Bud Black's Padres and the positives of Petco could not resuscitate Volquez's once-promising career, then you certainly had ample reason to be skeptical that the Pirates' $5 million investment -- relatively measly as it might have been -- would prove to be a worthwhile one.
But three starts into 2014 -- with a fourth set for Tuesday night against another former club, the division-rival Reds, at PNC Park -- Volquez (1-0, 1.71 ERA) has blown well past "worthwhile" and straight to a standing that qualifies as surprise. By any measure, he's been the Bucs' best pitcher, and his April output could be an indication that pitching coach Ray Searage and special assistant to the general manager Jim Benedict have worked their magic with yet another reclamation project, a la Francisco Liriano and A.J. Burnett, among others.
If this keeps up, Volquez might, in fact, be their best work yet.
"We just do our homework, that's all," Searage said. "You put in the time and show the kid that you care, and you can help him out tremendously."
Oh, they've helped, all right. Between their input and Volquez's conscientious approach, we've seen a rebirth of a right-hander who hadn't turned in an adjusted ERA better than league average since 2008, his All-Star season in Cincinnati. Among qualified pitchers from 2009-13, Volquez had the third-highest walk rate in the Major Leagues. With the Pirates, though, he's suddenly become a strike-throwing machine, walking just four batters through his first 21 innings while striking out 13.
"I'm really aggressive right now in the strike zone," Volquez said. "My fastball command is way better than what it was last year and the year before. Right now, everything is straight to the target. Before, everything fell open to the first-base side. Now it's more compact to the plate."
That's the mechanical key that pitching gurus Searage and Benedict picked up on when they analyzed video of Volquez before the offseason signing. When Volquez arrived for the club's minicamp in Bradenton, Fla., in January, Searage gave him some pointers on the proper long-toss process (Volquez had been trying, in Searage's words, to "scratch the sky" with this throws, before Searage got to throw more on a line). And in proper Spring Training camp, the Bucs went about the process of improving Volquez's bullpen work.
If you show up at PNC Park early enough Tuesday, check it out. For his first few throws, Volquez will have the bullpen catcher squat in front of the plate. This is intended to keep Volquez's body motion under control while speeding up his arm action.
"It helps him to keep his angle," Searage said. "So when he takes the ball from the glove, he's able to get it out and then up to keep his angle. It makes his arm work quicker as opposed to getting long."
Something else you'd notice if you watched Volquez warm up in the 'pen: He throws nearly as many pitches from the stretch as he does from the windup. This gets Volquez mentally prepared to repeat his delivery even when baserunners are aboard.
The good news, of course, is that they're not aboard nearly as much as they were during his Padres tenure.
"We didn't have all the answers right from the beginning," Searage admitted. "It was a slow process."
Indeed, when Volquez posted a 9.64 ERA in Grapefruit League play, suffice it to say, Pirates fans weren't beating down the doors of the Clubhouse Store to buy his jersey.
Pittsburgh's skipper, though, saw something beyond the stats.
"We live in a society where people love to crunch numbers," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Creative people look outside the numbers. We kept looking outside the numbers. There was incremental progress every time he took the ball. That's what we felt very, very optimistic about."
Early in camp, the Pirates had to press upon Volquez the notion that they weren't trying to coddle him. It took a little convincing. But if Volquez needed inspiration to embrace what Searage and Co. were selling, all he had to do was consult Liriano, the 2013 National League Comeback Player of the Year Award winner. Liriano had recruited his fellow Dominican Republic resident native told him Pittsburgh would be a fine place to rebuild his value, and Volquez soon discovered the unorthodox approach to bullpen sessions could be beneficial.
Volquez also discovered the benefit of the Buccos' system in which the starters watch each other's bullpen sessions. It was earlier this month, just before his first start of the season, when he noticed the slight delay Charlie Morton, Gerrit Cole and Liriano all employ when they break their throwing hand from the glove. Volquez determined that would be another good method to ensure he doesn't fly open in his delivery.
"Now you're allowing yourself to keep the front side locked in so you stay on your back side," Searage said. "He saw that, and all of a sudden ..."
All of a sudden, Volquez looked like a new man. Or more accurately, like an approximation of his 2008 self.
It's only three starts, and Volquez has certainly benefited from the Bucs' strategic shifts and the offensive abyss that is April, in general. But the sheer number of strikes, relative to his recent past, is especially encouraging. Volquez is averaging 3.4 pitches per plate appearance, a career best. He's not exactly racking up the strikeouts, but he's allowing just 0.95 walks and hits per nine innings.
For a Pirates club that already has substantial ground to make up in the NL Central and already has taken a substantial blow to its pitching depth with the loss of prospect Jameson Taillon to Tommy John surgery, the continuation of this early trend is not just a wish but a necessity.
"We just have to continue to do it all season long," said Volquez. "For the team and for myself."