The 2008 success of Edinson Volquez came up during the Fantasy Baseball Roundtable Radio Show when I was a guest last week. Mike Podhorzer of the Fantasy Baseball Generals asked me if I would look at Volquez in the light of PITCHf/x, particularly his dramatically increased ground ball rate.
This past offseason, I highlighted Volquez as part of my “Young Pitchers to Watch” article. Here’s what I said back then:
Traded to the Reds from Texas this offseason, Volquez has plenty of talent. His biggest asset is his strikeout rate, which was incredible at 11.9 in Triple-A in 2007. His control has been shaky at points, but it was very good in 2005. If he can fine-tune that just a bit, Volquez could be an excellent major league pitcher.
His 1.64 ERA thus far certainly indicates that he is an “excellent major league pitcher,” but is this really the case? Let’s first look at the numbers and then dive into the PITCHf/x data to see if they are sustainable.
Year Age League Level GS IP ERA WHIP W SV 2005 21 CAL A+ 11 66.2 4.18 1.14 5 0 2005 21 TEX AA 10 58.2 4.14 1.82 1 0 2006 22 PCL AAA 21 120.2 3.21 1.31 6 0 2006 22 MLB MLB 8 33.1 7.29 2.07 1 0 2007 23 CAL A+ 7 35 7.13 1.33 0 0 2007 23 TEX AA 11 51 3.55 1.11 8 0 2007 23 PCL AAA 8 50 1.41 0.90 6 0 2007 23 MLB MLB 6 34 4.50 1.44 2 0 2008 24 MLB MLB 14 88 1.64 1.17 9 0
Year Age League Level GS IP K/9 BB/9 xGB%* LIPS DIPS WHIP 2005 21 CAL A+ 11 66.2 10.4 1.6 48% --- --- 2005 21 TEX AA 10 58.2 7.5 2.6 47% --- --- 2006 22 PCL AAA 21 120.2 9.7 5.4 45% --- --- 2006 22 MLB MLB 8 33.1 4.1 4.6 44% 5.35 1.80 2007 23 CAL A+ 7 35 9.8 5.1 40% --- --- 2007 23 TEX AA 11 51 9.8 3.0 47% --- --- 2007 23 PCL AAA 8 50 11.9 3.8 44% --- --- 2007 23 MLB MLB 6 34 7.7 4.0 39% 4.31 1.38 2008 24 MLB MLB 14 88 10.7 4.5 51% 3.36 1.26
Year Age League Level GS IP BABIP LOB% HR/FB RS Team R/G 2005 21 CAL A+ 11 66.2 0.331 --- --- --- --- 2005 21 TEX AA 10 58.2 0.306 --- --- --- --- 2006 22 PCL AAA 21 120.2 0.278 74% --- --- --- 2006 22 MLB MLB 8 33.1 0.363 70% 15.2% 4.86 5.15 2007 23 CAL A+ 7 35 0.264 48% --- --- --- 2007 23 TEX AA 11 51 0.240 81% --- --- --- 2007 23 PCL AAA 8 50 0.238 83% --- --- --- 2007 23 MLB MLB 6 34 0.310 73% 9.8% 6.88 5.04 2008 24 MLB MLB 14 88 0.281 84% 4.7% 5.83 4.33
Volquez has been all over the place in the past few years. Just last year he played at every level from Advanced-A ball to the majors. This was mostly because Volquez had discipline problems and the team wanted him to rework his attitude and his pitches.
What we should basically take from all of these numbers is that he has always been a high strikeout pitcher, at times showing poor control, and usually being able to keep an above-average (though not great) ground ball rate.
This year, he is striking out a ton of batters—actually the highest rate of his career, excepting Triple-A last year. His control is below average but not awful in light of the great K/9 and the surprisingly good ground ball percentage. The 51 percent expected ground ball rate isn’t completely without precedent, if you look at Advanced-A and Double-A in 2005 (47 percent and 48 percent) and Double-A in 2007 (47 percent), though it has also been significantly lower than these marks.
We can pretty safely say that his ERA, WHIP and wins total are all lucky this year. He’s been fortunate enough to experience the perfect combination of good luck: a lucky BABIP (.281), LOB rate (84 percent), and HR/FB (4.7 percent). The Reds have scored 4.33 runs per game this year, but they’ve been scoring 5.83 runs in games Volquez is on the mound. The Reds’ overall runs per game could increase a little with Jay Bruce called up and Edwin Encarnacion due to improve, but Volquez should still be expected to receive less run support in games he starts going forward. His rate of wins thus far (64 percent) should decrease as his ERA rises and his run support lessens.
Still, his 3.36 LIPS ERA is very good, and the Reds are scoring a decent amount of runs, so while his surface numbers should regress, Volquez has still been one of the best pitchers in baseball this year.
The question that remains, however, is if he can keep it up. Let’s take a quick look at his True Quality start stats and then look at the PITCHf/x data.
True Quality Starts (TQS)
If you’re new around here, you can read up on True Quality Starts here. If you’re not looking to read a long, detailed explanation, True Quality Starts basically uses linear weighted run values on a pitcher’s skills (strikeouts, walks, batted ball breakdown) to calculate a “TQS Score” and takes a standard deviation approach to classify every start a pitcher makes into one of six categories: Great, Good, Above Average, Below Average, Bad and Awful.
Here are Edinson Volquez’s TQS numbers.
True Quality Starts
Year GS Great Good AbAv BlAv Bad Awful TQS* GG* BA* 2006 8 0% 0% 13% 38% 50% 0% 13% 0% 50% 2007 6 0% 17% 17% 67% 0% 0% 33% 17% 0% 2008 14 7% 36% 43% 14% 0% 0% 0% 43% 0%
Note 1: Volquez’ 2008 starts were plugged into the 2007 run environment because it is simpler this way and deals with a larger sample size. It is also probably more reflective of what the final 2008 run environment will look like than the current 2008 run environment would be.
*Note 2: TQS is the number of Above Average or better starts. GG is the number of Good plus Great starts. BA is the number of Bad plus Awful starts.
I don’t have TQS data for Volquez’ minor league starts, but you can see how well he has done this year in comparison to his previous major league experience. This year, Volquez has already turned in a “Great” start and a number of “Good” starts while avoiding any “Bad” or “Awful” starts. He has posted just two “Below Average” starts compared to five “Good” ones.
What we can divine from this is that Volquez has been a great pitcher this year on a consistent basis. No blow-ups and several top-notch outings. Definitely a good thing.
Now let’s check out how Volquez is doing what he is doing this year using PITCHf/x data. Let’s first check out his movement charts.
2007 – Edinson Volquez, speed and movement
TYPE % SPEED MOVEMENT X MOVEMENT Z FB 44% 94.7 -4.79 10.30 SK 21% 93.9 -8.22 7.08 CB 12% 80.4 5.23 -3.79 CU 23% 83.3 -5.39 3.22
2008 – Edinson Volquez, speed and movement
TYPE % SPEED MOVEMENT X MOVEMENT Z FB 36% 93.9 -4.09 9.93 SK 21% 94.4 -7.52 6.98 CB 7% 77.4 6.64 -4.39 SL 6% 83.1 3.22 -0.46 CH 31% 82.9 -6.36 1.99
League average, speed and movement
TYPE % SPEED MOVEMENT X MOVEMENT Z FB --- 91.7 -0.85 9.58 SK --- 89.9 0.15 4.81 CB --- 76.5 0.50 -4.71 SL --- 83.1 -0.79 2.62 CH --- 82.4 -3.92 5.65
We immediately see that Volquez throws a ton of pitches, but it hasn’t always been this way. Looking at some news articles, scouting reports and his 2007 movement chart, we see that the slider has been added just this year. An Yahoo! article from last month confirms that the slider is new and also hints that the sinker might be new:
With humility conquered for now, Volquez has moved onto his newest skill to learn: becoming a great pitcher. He is using a two-seam grip on his fastball that gives it sinking action, which, at 94 mph, borders on criminal. And in addition to his change-up, which is like a feather shot out of a cannon, he has reintroduced a slider that he kept in mothballs for two seasons.
This MLB.com article from the end of last year says that the sinker is new as well, but it also says that the curveball is, which almost certainly isn’t the case.
The Rangers sent Volquez all the way back to Class A for several reasons. One was to help him regain control and command of his pitches. Another was for him to work on developing all his pitches.
Volquez said he has done that. He has added a sinking fastball and a curveball to his repertoire.
In the article, Volquez is quoted as saying “My curveball is a lot better,” not that it is necessarily new. It’s a shame we don’t have PITCHf/x data going back further than last year, though I can only imagine how amazing this will all be in a couple years when we have four or five years worth of data to work with. This article says that he’s been throwing the curve and two-seamer since at least 2006, and this article from spring training attests that the curveball is simply improved, though doesn’t differentiate between the two fastballs.
Either way, Volquez’ arsenal certainly looks solid. He’s getting more than three inches of additional horizontal movement on the four-seamer than league average, two-and-a-half on the change and more than three-and-a-half of sink on the change. He’s getting six-and-a-half more inches of horizontal than league average on the curveball and two-and-a-half on the slider, which also has nearly three inches more vertical movement than league average.
If we look at pitch speeds, we see an absolutely absurd 11.5 mph difference between his change-up and his sinker (which, at 94.4 mph, is incredible in and of itself) and 11 mph between the change and the four-seamer. We see a nearly identical difference between the fastballs and the slider, and if we look at the curveball, the difference is even greater at 17 mph and 16.5 mph, respectively. That kind of difference is bound to make any batter look silly.
While Volquez absolutely throws a sinker, it is not the easiest thing to distinguish it from the four-seam fastball by simply looking at the movement. Mike Fast helped me pick out the two different pitches using spin direction (a big “thank you,” Mike), which he has discussed here and specifically about Volquez here. I’m not sure if I classified them perfectly, but hope they’re pretty close.
Volquez’ sinker does not have as much downward movement as known sinker–ball pitchers get. Volquez throws the four-seamer more often, and the sinkers he does throw “sink” (relative to a ball thrown without spin) more than two inches less than even a league-average sinker (6.98 for Volquez, 4.81 on average). A guy like Brandon Webb sees his sinker “sink” as much as five inches (which would show up at -5 on a movement chart like the one above).
If we look at Volquez’ late break as compared to other pitchers with true sinkers, we see the same thing. There’s just no comparison.
The average vertical late break on Volquez’ sinker is -6.75 and the league average is -8.76. The average for elite sinkerballers is even better, as you can see.
So then, how is Volquez generating such a high groundball rate throwing a sinker that doesn’t have as much sink as normal sinkers do? Plus, he’s throwing it only 21 percent of the time. There are a couple of reasons, but the first thing I thought of was location. It’s logical that the lower a ball is thrown, the more difficult it will be for a batter to get under it to hit it into the air, and the more likely it becomes that the batter hits the top of the ball and drives it into the ground.
Jonathan Hale said in his article that “regardless of the break of the pitch, one thing is certain: the lower it is thrown, the more likely it will be hit on the ground.”
The graph at the very bottom of the Joe Sheehan article also illustrates this point nicely. The lower the pitch is thrown—regardless of the type of fastball—the more likely it is to be a ground ball when put into play. Sinking fastballs, however, have a high percentage of becoming a ground ball regardless of where they are thrown (lower is better, of course, but a two-seamer at the top of the zone has roughly the same chance of becoming a grounder as a four-seamer at the bottom of the zone).
All this being known, let’s look at how Volquez is locating his pitches this year. The graph on the left shows Volquez, and the graph on the right shows the league average numbers for 2007 and 2008 (until June 14, 2008) combined. I broke the graphs down by sections, generally 10 inches per section but a little bit differently for the strike zone. The lower boundary of the strike zone is 19.2 (when mapped to average), so that was used as the separator instead of 20. The upper boundary of the strike zone is 42.7, so that was used as the separator instead of 40. The ground is at 0.
While this validates Volquez’ current groundball rate, it does mean that he will have to walk a tighter line going forward. It is certainly sustainable, but not nearly as sustainable as the groundball rate of any of the guys who throw true sinkers (e.g., Webb, Fausto Carmona, Aaron Cook, Roy Halladay.) and who throw them up to 75 percent of the time. If he starts locating his pitches differently, the ground ball percentage will drop… something that would not happen as drastically to any of the guys I just mentioned.
I found a similar case to Volquez in Dustin McGowan (although McGowan really doesn’t throw anything resembling a sinker). Here is McGowan’s vertical location chart from 2007, when he posted a 51 percent expected ground ball rate and a 1.71 GB/FB.
If you happen to own McGowan this year, however, you’ve certainly noticed that his ground ball rate has fallen off considerably. He now has just a 44 percent expected ground ball rate and a 1.22 GB/FB. At this point, I think we’re all guessing that he’s throwing the ball higher in the zone, so let’s check out his vertical location chart to confirm our suspicions.
Sure enough, he is throwing the ball higher in the zone a lot more often, sending his groundball rate down near league average. Barely half of his pitches are being thrown below 30 inches, while last year a full two-thirds were that low.
The lesson here is that Volquez could certainly maintain this ground ball rate (he’s posted rates close to this before), but there’s also a very real chance it will fall off. Unfortunately, there’s no way of predicting what will happen.
If Volquez starts locating pitches differently, however, his groundball rate likely wouldn’t fall quite as far as McGowan’s did. First, Volquez does throw a sinker (albeit a sub-par one) that will inherently induce some ground balls. Second, he gets a lot of sink on his change-up. He’s getting 1.99 inches of vertical movement compared to a league average of 5.65, and his vertical late break is -10.68 compared to a league average of -8.91.
My guess would be that it will decrease, but I still think it will remain above 45 percent. He does seem to like to keep the ball down, judging by this year and by the times in the minors he had a relatively high groundball rate, so I don’t think we’ll ever see him go below league average. And who’s to say, in the years his rate was lowest, that he wasn’t simply having mechanical trouble or wasn’t asked to try new things by his minor league coaches? We just don’t know.
Given this risk involved with his groundball rate and his incredible ERA, WHIP and win total, it might actually be a good time to sell Volquez. His strikeout rate is also at risk of decreasing, even given his variety and quality of pitches, simply because it is so high. Since 2005, there have been just five pitcher seasons (assuming at least 12 games started) where a pitcher maintained a K/9 above 10 and two pitcher seasons above 10.5. It should be noted, though, that there were also six pitchers in 2004 who kept a K/9 above 10 (and three above 10.5). Not an easy task to accomplish, but possible.
He absolutely has talent, as I’ve always said, but if another owner thinks he’s keeping up this groundball rate or strikeout rate (or even his ERA, if you’re dealing with a less intelligent owner), you might be able to trade him for a more stable commodity. If you don’t mind this risk, though, Volquez certainly has the potential to be a top pitcher for a long time.