Newly appointed Royals ace Edinson Volquez has managed to live up to his status as the defending World Series Champions top pitcher so far in 2016. He has 3 wins and no losses in his 4 starts while compiling a tidy 1.46 ERA in 24.2 innings of work, averaging just over 6 innings per start. So why has he seemingly come out of no where?
The Royals signed Volquez to a 2 year $20 million deal. These are not the types of deals that pitchers who start opening day for defending World Series Champions sign on the open market. Its all made even more surprising by the fact that through 2013, Volquez carried a 4.75 ERA and 83 ERA+. He was more Kyle Davies than James Shields.
For his career, he has struck out 7.9 batters per 9 and from 2008 to 2013 had increased that up to 8.6 batters per 9. It wasn’t until 2013 that this number noticeably fell all the way down to 6.5 strikeouts per 9 while playing for Pittsburg. The anomaly of course is that this was also his best season in regards to ERA when he posted a cool 3.04 and racked up 192.2 innings. The season that saved Volquez and the reason he is with the Royals now.
Lets take a look at the evolution of Edinson Volquez the pitcher.
The change began to take place in 2013, when he abruptly began to abandon his fastball as his primary pitch and began using his sinker/slider pitch most. Prior to the '13 he threw his fastball around 40% of the time on average and his slider about 14% of the time. After 2013 that changed. His fastball became nothing more than a secondary pitch with usage dipping to the single digits in terms of percentage of use in 2013 and continuing during his time with the Royals. He only used it around 2% of the time in 2015 and less than 4% of the time so far in 2016. His slider by comparison has seen its usage climb to over 40% and over 50% so far in 2016. (see chart)
This is a change that certainly did not reap any immediate benefits as his ERA ballooned in 2013 along with many of his other numbers including WHIP and hits allowed. He led MLB in runs allowed in 2013 with 108 and was allowing over 10 hits per 9 innings. This was (and has remained) his worst season as a professional.
In 2014, while playing with Pittsburg he was able to right his ship. His ERA shrank back down to a career low and he was managing to do so while striking out the fewest batters per 9 innings than he ever had his entire career, 6.5 batters per 9.
The biggest change seemed to be the number of hard hit balls on pitches that weren't his slider. He increased his usage of his fastball slightly, while decreasing use of his slider from his previous season and with the work of the Pittsburg pitching staff was able to see much weaker contact. Even though he wasn't getting more swings and misses, he was getting less hits and hard hits at that.
In fact, if anything he was missing fewer bats, evidenced both by his lower K rate (6.5/9) and his whiffs per swing which was lower on all pitches except his curveball. This was, however, also the time he began throwing a knuckle curve. This single pitch may have been the biggest difference between Volquez flaming out as an "almost been" and becoming the electric pitcher we see today.
The differences continued when he reached Kansas City. Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland has seemingly increased the effectiveness of Volquez's pitches, matching it to the ballpark and defense the Royals put behind him. First, they went back to increasing his slider usage to the level it was during his disastrous 2014 season, as well as decreasing his fastball usage even further. Eiland also seems to have Volquez saving his changeup for "special occasions" and has him throwing hit fairly often in counts where the pitcher is ahead, especially against right handed batters. Against lefties, his slider still remains his primary pitch.
So how has the leagues best defense, large Kauffman stadium, a change in pitch usage and a change to the knuckle curve helped Edinson Volquez? By seeing a decrease in the amount of hard hit balls. His isolated power and slugging charts both look quite comparable (obviously) when comparing 2013-14 with his time with the Royals.
As you can see, pitches low in the zone are no longer getting "mashed" off of Volquez. The interesting part about this is that his WHIP was actually UP in 2015 to 1.308. By using a mixture of all of the above elements, he has become both a fantastic contact pitcher, and someone who is quite adept at missing bats. The Royals have taken out a power zone from Volquez and have turned his fastball into an excellent secondary pitch that can be used to get an out when need be, and since he came to Kansas City, an out by way of fly ball more than not.
Keep in mind that the usage of his fastball has dropped DRAMATICALLY, but his effectiveness with it has increased just as drastically. Not just in terms of predicted outcome, in this case being fly balls, but also in swings and misses. Quite simply, hitters are simply not looking for it, so when he drops one in at 95 it comes as a surprise. A truley rare weapon for a Major League Pitcher to have, a mid 90's fastball that comes as a surprise to batters.
Once again, we see a DRASTIC change in whiffs per swing against his fastball and a modest improvement in effectiveness of his changeup. Accounting for fewer line drives and more fieldable balls for the Royals defense to scoop up.
So far this season, one thing that has been noticeable is his increased velocity on his fastball. He has been averaging 94.1 miles per hour on it thus far this year with his career average on the pitch being 93.4. Last season he averaged 93.8. His slider has also increased around a half a mile an hour over his career norms, now sitting at 93.7. This extra velocity has aided in more swings and misses for Volquez and his K rate for the year stands at 8 batters per 9 innings, which is a full batter more than the 7 he managed in 2015.
The trends for Edinson Volquez are all pointing to a potential breakout season. He is shown completely capable of missing bats when needed and also at being an effective contact pitcher. A deadly combination for an organization backing him up with multiple gold glovers and deep outfield walls. Add to that increased velocity while not losing any movement and we might just have something special on our hands in 2016.