Edinson Volquez, 2011 Opening Day starter, has begun the season as though he were giving a stirring tribute to the 2003 Reds' pitching staff. Through four 2010 starts, here's the stat line:
|2011 - Edinson Volquez||2-0||4||4||0||0||0||0||22.2||20||17||17||6||16||24||6.75||1.59|
Aside from being a great example of why W-L record is a pretty worthless way to evaluate individual performance, fielding-independent pitching is probably the main theme that leaps out. As he has his entire Reds career, Volquez is missing bats. His 9.53 K/9 rate is nothing to sneeze at - and ever slightly below his 9.62 mark over 62.2 innings last season. When Voloquez gets ahead in the count and puts pitches where he wants them, he's still fooling hitters. So that's encouraging. It's not as though his "stuff" has vanished, like so much stuff will sometimes do.
Those other "true outcomes," the walks and home runs, are another story. Volquez has always issued his share of free passes, with a 4.77 BB/9 rate in the majors and 3.4 BB/9 in the minors. He's at the point in his career, approaching 500 MLB innings pitched in his Age 27 season, that this tendency is pretty well codified. As his career progresses, he could evolve into a more control or deception-oriented pitcher to account for a decline in velocity, but not only is this a difficult proposition, Volquez is still throwing heat. If radar guns are to be believed, he's been able to touch the high-90s, upping his average fastball velocity each start to almost 95 in his third start of the season.
The problem is, Volquez's stuff is not enough to salvage the 6.4 BB/9 rate he's currently putting out there. That's before considering bats actually touching baseballs. As his 1.588 WHIP attests, Volquez (by average) is likely to have at least one runner in scoring position per inning.
Surprisingly, EV is getting a better percentage of first-pitch strikes than his career average, while staying in the zone as much as he has since 2008. So he could be getting squeezed a bit by the by umps. The biggest red flag I can see is that Volquez is getting hit more while in the strike zone. He's having trouble staying out of hitters' hot zones, which could mean there's a little bad luck in with the poor control. A lot of this is barely worth mentioning given the sample, but Volquez has gotten pounded on 0-1 counts. Despite not throwing an inordinate number of balls compared to his career history, hitters are getting to the pitches he's throwing for strikes, contributing to an increase in walks partly by default. It simply leaves less strikes on the board.
The overwhelming majority of these woes are playing out in the first frame, contributing to a 29.25 first-inning ERA. 13 of his 17 earned runs, 4 of his 6 HRs and half of his 16 walks have happened there. I have to think this has something to do with the fact that the first inning always seems to lead off the game. Whether it's jitters, extra time required to get warm or something else related to the early stages of the game, this seems fixable. And fixing it would almost entirely blot out the struggles Volquez is having.
On the home run front, things are just as curious This seems like a good time to mention that while Volquez's 6.63 FIP suggests his making his own bed, his 4.07 xFIP suggests Lady Luck is helping him make it. While I'm mostly preaching to the choir here, it would help to have a menacing guy in a suit behind me, repeatedly chanting "small sample." An unholy number of Volque'z fly balls have gone for home runs (35.3%), which is far beyond the 10.5% that xFIP uses and the 11.8% career rate for Volquez.
Is it Great American Ballpark? Probably at least a little. Volquez has made 3 of his four starts there and all six of his home runs surrendered have come at home. In fact, all six home runs came in only two games - Opening Day and last night against the Pirates. In the latter, winds were reported at 15-20 mph to LF. While Volquez has been serving it up, home run at this rate are completely unsustainable. Unless something is terribly wrong - with the Universe - this should correct itself. Volquez's BABIP so far is .269, suggesting he's not been unlucky when balls are in play. He's certainly been hittable as the result of his lapses in control, but it'll be helpful once fly balls no longer have a 1-in-3 shot to blossom into home runs.
The most important stat in all this may very well be the 22.2 IP. The season is still young and Volquez pitched a shorter spring training than expected, so he may simply be lagging behind the rest of the staff. Everything you've heard about small sample size applies, especially all the noise generating by his HR/9 rate. Only more innings will give us a fuller picture. The factors I've mentioned could be a byproduct of the short spring and small early-season sample. Or ongoing recovery from Tommy John surgery. Or career-long challenges cropping up against. As any good lawyer or tweed jacket knows: "it depends" and "some combination of the above."
From my own observation, hitters seem to be sitting on the fastball while not being as flummoxed by the change-up. Is the deception breaking down? Maybe a little. But it doesn't seem catastrophic. If Volquez can get more comfortable in the early-going of the game, while building on his first-strike advantage - and pitching like he has the advantage to begin with by working the corners when he has pitchers' counts - the rest should follow. Despite the ugly results so far, these seem like very achievable goals.