Early showing by Volquez has been quite good
Bucs right-hander proving Huntington's instinct on comeback candidates correct
When the Pirates signed pitcher Edinson Volquez as a free agent last December, many people were skeptical about the acquisition, and that type of reaction was understandable.
After all, the 30-year-old right-hander led the National League in runs allowed last year (114), and Volquez walked more batters than anyone else (105) the season before that. His one truly superb year in the big leagues -- when he was an All-Star and a 17-game winner for the Reds -- was all the way back in 2008.
But Pirates general manager Neal Huntington and his team of scouts and statistical analysts have done an excellent job of identifying "bounce-back" candidates in recent years -- especially when it comes to pitchers -- and they viewed Volquez as someone in that category.
So far, it looks as though they were right.
Volquez picked up his first victory in a Bucs uniform on Thursday, when he worked seven strong innings in an 11-2 triumph over the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park. Though his pitching line wasn't extraordinary that night (he allowed eight hits and two runs, walked a batter and struck out three), his other numbers were. Namely: Volquez threw only 77 pitches, and 53 of them were strikes; he retired 20 of the 28 batters he faced on three pitches or fewer; he threw a first-pitch strike 16 times; and he had only one three-ball count.
"Each one of the starts we've seen him, the pitch count has been in a very efficient place," Pittsburgh manager Clint Hurdle said after that win, which was the third start and fourth appearance overall for Volquez. "He comes right at you to make something happen."
"That was one of the things we were working on during Spring Training was getting ahead in the count early," Volquez said. "That's a great way for me to stay in the game longer and not throw too many pitches. That's the main thing right now -- stay in the bottom of the strike zone and get ahead in the count."
After that performance against the Brewers, Volquez's ERA sat at 1.71 -- and though it's still quite early in the season, that's a far cry from the 5.71 mark he posted in 33 combined games (32 starts) with the Padres and Dodgers in 2013.
If Ray Searage is able to help draw an excellent season out of Volquez, 2014 will become the third straight year the Pirates' pitching coach has done so with a newcomer to the staff. A.J. Burnett had a 5.15 ERA with the Yankees in 2011, but he became a 16-game winner with a 3.51 ERA for Pittsburgh in '12. Francisco Liriano had a 5.34 ERA with the Twins and White Sox in 2012 before he won 16 games and posted a 3.02 ERA with the Bucs in '13 on his way to being named the NL Comeback Player of the Year.
On the heels of his personal turnaround, Liriano helped to convince his countryman Volquez (both are from the Dominican Republic) to become a Pirate.
"Yeah, he did do that," Volquez said with a smile. "The year before , he was kind of struggling a little bit. Then he signed with the Pirates and everybody saw the year that he had last year. That made me feel like it would be good to come and be a part of the Pirates. I signed with them because I felt like they have the right coaches here and people who can help me."
Searage is a humble guy who downplays the effect he has on pitchers, even the ones who come to him with the tag of "reclamation project" as Liriano and Volquez did. Searage doesn't see himself as a "miracle worker" -- as he has sometimes been called -- he just tries to keep things simple and allow pitchers to zero in on what they do best.
"We're trying to get him back to where he was with his delivery three or four years ago," Searage said of Volquez. "When he struggled, he had so many people try to help him that before you know it, it's too much information. They were trying so many different things, and it wasn't good.
"We've kept it basic. We want him to go out there and focus on executing pitches -- not how to execute pitches. That's the biggest thing. Edinson is very talented, but if you don't corral that, you don't know where it's going to go. Right now, we're starting to corral it."