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April 24, 2009
Dreaming of Chris Volstad
Last week we took a closer look at Kevin Millwood to see if his early-season performance made him a candidate to be "that guy" that we all desperately seek to add to our roster early in the season. You know the one-the pitcher with the surprise start to the year who is able to continue his quality performance over the course of the season. Since the analysis of Millwood suggested that he was useful, though not nearly at the level that we had hoped for, the search continues, and this week we'll look at Chris Volstad of the Florida Marlins.
Volstad was very likely taken during your league's draft, but the consideration for most was that he would regress from last year's ERA while showing some improvement in his peripherals. That hasn't happened so far in 2009, with the 6-foot-7 right-hander currently sporting an ERA a bit below last year's surprising 2.88 mark. He's done this by whiffing 8.8 batters per nine, which is 3.3 more strikeouts per nine than he achieved in the bigs last year. He has also kept the ball in the park, although that should be no surprise given his ground-ball tendencies.
How sustainable is this performance? Volstad is striking out significantly more hitters, but he's handing out free passes left and right as well. He didn't have issues with his control in the minors, but last year he walked 3.4 per nine, and during this young season he's walking over six per nine. It hasn't affected his ERA yet, thanks to a .250 BABIP; according to QERA, he should be closer to the 4.73 mark, rather than sporting an ERA below 3.00. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume that his walk rate will return to last season's rate: this would give him a QERA of 3.76, nearly a full run worth of improvement.
That figure also assumes that Volstad is going to maintain his newfound ability to make hitters miss. Volstad is striking out more batters, and overall contact against him is down (72.3 percent against 83.3 percent last year). Hitters are making more contact on pitches outside of the zone, though, but as you can tell by his low BABIP, they haven't been able to do anything with them yet-his fly-ball rate is up slightly from last season, but 23.1 percent of those have been popups to the infield. This is the area where Volstad becomes an interesting case; it's with the pitches outside of the zone where he has made the most progress, but it could also hamper him in the long run due to the rising walk rates. Let's take a look at his location during the first three starts of the year using Pitch-f/x data:
The box in the middle represents the strike zone. This is the catcher's viewpoint: the red squares are pitches to right-handed hitters (to the left are inside pitches) and blue is to left-handers (to the left is outside). Volstad pounded right-handers inside during his first start of the year, but he also wasted too many pitches doing so. The result is that he threw 92 pitches in just five innings, while walking four and striking out seven. Curiously, despite the number of pitches down and in, Volstad induced just four ground balls.
The lineup was stacked with left-handers in Volstad's second start of the year, and therefore the number of pitches that he spent throwing inside to right-handers was diminished. Since he stays away from lefties, but generally in the strike zone or around it, he was able to pitch a more efficient game, with 95 pitches over seven innings. He whiffed four this time out, but walked just two, and induced seven ground balls.
Back to a righty-heavy lineup, and back to more pitches inside to the hitters. 98 pitches through 4
Now, of course it is only three starts, but we still have a relatively clear idea of where these strikeouts have come from (besides just saying "the Nationals' lineup"). Volstad seems preoccupied with busting right-handers inside, and 11 of his 16 strikeouts have come against righties (with 28 ABs for left-handed batters against 30 for right-handers on the season). Is there any reason to believe that this will continue and develop into a trend, rather than just something that occurred during the first few starts of the year? Last season he struck out 27 right-handers (or in 25 percent of the at-bats) and 25 lefties (14.7 percent), so the idea of a split in strikeout performance isn't out of the question. Can he maintain that rate?
Volstad's average velocity seems to be up slightly, from 90.5 mph last year to 91.2 this year. He has also apparently altered his strategy, throwing more changeups and cutting down on curveballs, though overall his breaking ball is still his secondary offering, with the changeup is his third most-often used pitch. Not only does his fastball have more velocity, but it's moving more as well:
His fastball has more life to it in multiple directions; it's dropping further, as well as cutting to the side more than it did late last year. He's only in his age-22 season, so it should not be a surprise that he's picked up some additional velocity and life on his fastball. I'm just not sure that he's going about using it the right way by throwing as many pitches out of the zone as he has. He's walking over six hitters per nine now as it is, and the league may not even be wise to his approach yet.
Given his heavy stuff and the natural sink that comes from being a taller pitcher, it may be in Volstad's best interest to focus on getting hitters to ground out rather than trying to strike them out. Another tall pitcher with sink on his fastball is Derek Lowe, and he approaches the situation differently, as seen in his opening day start against the Phillies:
Lowe goes away to lefties (as Volstad does), but he also goes away to right-handers; he induced 15 ground balls that evening as well. My worry with Volstad is that he'll begin to resemble Fausto Carmona rather than Derek Lowe. Carmona gets grounders at about the same rate as Lowe (though he's struggled to induce them this year) by pounding hitters inside with his fast, heavy sinker. Carmona has also posted walk rates of 5.2 and 5.6 the past two seasons, with more free passes than strikeouts in both. Hitters began to lay off of the stuff he threw inside and low back in 2007, and as a result he has struggled. Volstad is whiffing hitters today, but if opposing managers use lineups that lean to the right, he could end up wasting all of his pitches in the first four or five innings by repeatedly going inside, at which point he'd never be the force that he could be if were he to focus on his ability to make hitters ground out. This is all speculative of course, and those are extremes cases of good and bad that Volstad may not reach, but it's something to think about.
What we can tell from the data we have now is that Volstad's strikeout spike is real to a degree; chances are good that not facing the Nationals in two-thirds of his starts as he did to begin the season will hurt those figures, but it's also clear that he's actively trying for them against right-handers. If we give him 7.0 K/9 rather than his current 8.8, then the hypothetical QERA mentioned earlier jumps from 3.76 to 4.46. While it's an improvement over last season, it's still not quite where it needs to be for us to jump all over Volstad.