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This is going to come to you a day late, and likely a dollar short. Edinson Volquez took the mound last night, but I’m writing this in the afternoon so the results of his one-game playoff performance aren’t yet known, nor if he’ll get another shot. That said, we do have a 31-start sample from which to analyze this year, allowing us to determine how we feel about Volquez going forward.

Player Background
Signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2001, Volquez matured gradually, not appearing on a prospect list until 2004. From there he took off, ranked by Baseball America as the Rangers no. 1 prospect following the 2005 season, in addition to ranking in their top 100 for the first and final time. He was a member of the Rangers vaunted DVD trio (Danks-Volquez-Diamond), and thought to be part of the wave of pitching prospects that would save Texas.

Instead he was traded to the Reds prior to 2008 as the primary piece in the deal that brought Josh Hamilton to Texas. While there were questions about his ability to pitch at the highest level by the time the trade came around, Volquez put them to rest with a dominant 2008 in which he went 17-6 in 32 starts, with a 3.21 ERA and 25 percent strikeout rate.

He never quite lived up to that breakout season in the following years, failing to post an ERA or FIP below 4.00 in any of them. While part of that can be blamed on pitching in Great American Ballpark, it seemed that Volquez would always be an underachiever after he failed to pitch well in his two season with the Padres.

Entering 2014 though, some still held out hope for the one-time top prospect. Volquez had always shown the ability to miss bats, it was just accompanied by the inability to find the strikezone with any sort of consistency, and a propensity to give up home runs—a problem when you’re handing out free passes. Still, Ray Searage had shown the ability to take advantage of reclamation projects before, having just revived Francisco Liriano’s career the season prior. With the Pirates defense behind him, the thought was Volquez would be free to trust his stuff and the results could follow.

What Went Right in 2014
Basically everything. Volquez recorded his best season since 2008, going 13-7 with a 3.04 (!) ERA and a career-best walk rate. He breached the 50 percent mark in terms of ground balls for the fourth time in the last five seasons, and had the lowest homer per fly ball rate since 2008. Volquez averaged more than six innings per start for the first time since 2008—credit his decreased walk rate allowing him to go deeper into games. Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects has an excellent piece on Volquez’s evolution this year, speaking specifically to how coach Ray Searage made a mechanical change to limit his walks.

Per Fantasy Pros, Volquez’s ADP was undrafted, after he was ranked the 458th player on the board and 108th overall pitcher. He finished as the 20th-ranked pitcher starting pitcher in fantasy (per ESPN’s Player Rater), which is a great value given the likelihood you got him for a pittance.

What Went Wrong in 2014
The flip side of the previous question/answer—almost nothing. The two niggling stats to monitor are his strikeout rate continuing to dip, dropping to 17 percent, and his fly-ball rate going up to 33 percent. The latter might not strike you as a negative, and without context, it’s not. That said, his HR:FB rate dropped by two-and-a-half percentage points while his fly ball rate jumped by three percentage points. Those two things don’t normally happen in concert, giving rise to the question of whether he can keep it going in the future.

What to Expect in 2015
It’s hard to say. There are many who believe that the Volquez that showed up in 2014 is the real Volquez, it just took him a long time to get there after flashing it in 2008. There could be some truth to that, but the overall trend of his peripherals doesn’t really give us a lot to go on in terms of buying in. What to expect will especially depend on where Volquez lands, as he is a free agent at season’s end, and there’s good reason to suspect that Pittsburgh’s defense has benefited him greatly, more so than any sustainable changes have, anyway.

Frankly, I think it’s likely that Volquez is overdrafted come 2015 based on his extremely positive 2014. Especially since it’s not that he was merely extremely lucky in 2014. He’s a talented pitcher, but the continuing offensive decline and inaccurate benchmarks are going to make it seem like he was better than he was. Sometimes a player has a strong season, supported (at least in part) by peripherals making us think they’re somebody new. Sometimes though, weird things happen, and it’s far more likely that the player in question is more of the guy they’ve been for 8-9 seasons than the guy they were over the course of six months.

In keeper leagues, selling high on Volquez is advised. Pitching has never been stronger, and he was more than likely a waiver claim that cost you little to pick up. Bank the profits you’ve already received and set about finding the next Volquez.

The Great Beyond
Let’s do a blind sample, just for fun:

ERA

FIP

K%

BB%

HR/FB%

BABIP

Player A

3.04

4.12

17.3

8.8

9.1

.263

Player B

5.71

4.24

18.3

9.9

11.9

.325

I’m sure you’ve figured out that Player A is Volquez from 2014. Player B? Volquez from 2013. You tell me what’s drastically different about the numbers? The HR:FB is a big different maker, especially since he left PETCO, but his career figure is 11.4 percent, so it’s more likely a fluke than it is anything substantive. He’s missing fewer bats than ever before, in an era where more bats are missed than ever before. The walk rate is a positive trend, and one that continued from 2013, but again the peripherals don’t bear out a player that has changed as much as his surface stats. That’s what is shown in the relatively similar FIPs. Even with the improved home run rate, something FIP weighs heavily, Volquez just isn’t a very different player.

Until we get to the last category there. He’s seen a swing of 62 points in his batting average on balls in play, and that’s worth taking note of. This isn’t to suggest he’s been lucky—almost anyone with a .263 BABIP has experienced some form of luck. It’s more to suggest that the Pirates, one of the more defensively savvy teams out there, are making Volquez appear better than he really is. Missing bats is great, but when you’re as defensively efficient as the Pirates are, his ground ball rate is going to play well, and his new penchant for finding bats allows him to go deeper into games at the same time.

While those who banked on Volquez suddenly clicking essentially got what they wanted, it wasn’t really because he clicked. It was because the Pirates figured that what he was already doing would work even better within the confines of their system. And they were right, at least for a season.

Thank you for reading

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