Edinson Volquez: Francisco Liriano 2.0?
The Pittsburgh Pirates recently signed Edinson Volquez , one time ace and all-star with the Cincinnati Reds, to a 1 year, $5 million deal. The Pirates have a ton of rotation depth to begin with and Volquez only adds to the depth on a cheap, risk free deal. The Pirates have a recent history of being able to revive pitching careers. The resurrections of A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano provide hope that Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage will mold Volquez into the 2014 version of Francisco Liriano.
Liriano came to the Pirates after a few solid seasons with the Minnesota Twins and a brief stint with the Chicago White Sox in 2012. Liriano and Volquez are very similar pitchers. They both can strikeout a ton of batters, but have questionable command of their pitches and walk too many batters. In 2011 and 2012 Liriano walked an average of 5.00 batters per nine innings resulting in ERA's over 5.00 each season. In Liriano's best season with Minnesota he walked 2.72 batters per nine innings with a 3.62 ERA.
Edinson Volquez comes to the Pirates after spending the majority of his career in Cincinnati, a year and a half with the San Diego Padres and half a season with the Los Angeles Dodgers. Edinson Volquez's best season came in 2008 when he went 17-6, but walked 4.27 batters per nine innings. However, his high strikeout rate of 9.46 per nine innings allowed him to escape with a 3.21 ERA. Since then Volquez has suffered through inconsistency and injuries. In each of his following seasons with the Reds he walked an average of over 5.00 batters per nine innings. Edinson Volquez made his way to the Padres in 2012 where he was their Opening Day starter. He had a decent season going 11-11 with a 4.14 ERA and 8.57 strikeouts per nine innings while allowing 5.17 walks per nine innings. In 2013 Volquez cut down on the walks with 4.07 walks per nine innings, but his strikeout rate declined to 7.50 per game. He was not able to escape jams like he did in 2012 and 2008. Volquez clearly has talent and can strikeout a bunch of batters, but the walks have killed him. He owns a career 4.75 walks per nine innings. This has hurt him both when he does or doesn't have his strikeout pitches working.
In 2013, the Pirates took a chance with Francisco Liriano. He then worked very hard in the minors and spring training in preparation for his call up. Ray Searage clearly was able to find something amiss in Liriano's mechanics and was able to make changes that showed on the mound. Liriano struckout 9.11 batters per nine innings, walked 3.52 per nine innings, and was able to escape jams. Most notably, his walk rate was significantly down from the tumultuous years with the Twins. His strikeout rate was the highest it has been since his brilliant 2010 season. Many people think Edinson Volquez could be the Pirates project in 2014 and this actually could come to fruition. As stated earlier, Volquez and Liriano are very similar pitchers. Volquez could be the biggest challenge the Pirates have had in their efforts to revive pitchers. However, there is hope for Volquez. In 2013 with the Padres and Dodgers, Volquez had a FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching on an ERA scale) of 4.27, and a xFIP (Expected Fielder Independent Pitching) of 4.07. These suggest he actually was not as bad as one would expect. If Volquez can cut down on his usually high home run per nine inning totals like Liriano did in 2013 and raise his ground ball percentage to around 50% (like Liriano did in 2013) Volquez will likely improve. The biggest key with improving Edinson Volquez is cutting down on the walks. If Ray Searage was able to help Liriano cut down on his walk totals and improve his strikeout rate with improved mechanics maybe the same can be done by Searage with Volquez.
I suspect, unless Volquez experiences an amazing spring training, that he starts in the minors, goes to extended spring training to continue improving his mechanics and cut down on the walks, and will be the first call up to the starting rotation. The deal is cheap, so even if the Pirates can't revive Volquez it doesn't cost much. The rewards could be there for the Pirates as evidenced by Volquez's 2008 season. Reduce the walk rate and you will see a much improved Edinson Volquez, much like Francisco Liriano.