It’s fine if you’re still skeptical of Edinson Volquez despite his strong start to 2014. It’s kind of crazy not to be, to be honest. Volquez has been one type of pitcher his entire career, and suddenly after a few months with the Pirates, he looks like something else entirely. It’s going to be a while until I stop expecting the clock to hit midnight and Volquez to turn into a pumpkin, and I suspect that I’m not alone.
Still, it’s also hard to ignore the results to this point. Volquez is throwing tons of strikes, he’s getting a decent amount of groundballs, and there hasn’t been a point yet in any of his four outings where he’s started to lose control. He really does look like a different pitcher.
There was one at-bat that really stood out to me last night in terms of “the new Volquez.” It was his strikeout of Ryan Braun in the fifth inning. In particular, what I’m thinking of is the strikeout pitch itself; a letter-high 91 mph fastball that was tempting enough for Braun to hack at but that he obviously had no chance of making contact with.
If you’ve ever been an over-matched pitcher on the mound against a good hitter (this is how I spent much of my senior year of high school, when I’d be trotted out to pitch against teams like Grove City — always state contenders in AAA around that time — in the name of “senior leadership”) you know the temptation of the high fastball. Basically, if you’re in over your head against a hitter and don’t possess exceptional velocity the only way you can generate a swing-and-miss with anything other than a breaking pitch is to put your fastball in the letter-high sweet spot in which a hitter will be tempted to swing but unable to catch up with the pitch because of its height, regardless of the pitch’s poor velocity. This is, of course, just hilariously dangerous against a good hitter. If you throw the pitch too high, it’ll be an obvious ball that the hitter won’t swing at. If you throw the pitch too low, the ball will be tattooed into another dimension.
By the fifth inning last night, Volquez’s fastball velocity was starting to dip a bit into the 91-92 mph range, which is a dangerous spot against a hitter like Braun. After Braun fouled off a pitch and took a strike, Volquez went with that high fastball on the 0-2 pitch and Braun bit. That pitch really struck me, because even deciding to make that pitch requires a ton of confidence in the pitcher’s command all around; Russell Martin has to be confident that Volquez is going to locate it perfectly and not leave it at the belt buckle (remember: it was still a 2-2 game at that point and with the 0-2 count, they could’ve tried to get Braun fishing in a number of less dangerous ways), and Volquez has to have to the confidence that he can actually throw the pitch he’s being asked to throw. A month ago, I would’ve thought that trying to sneak a high 91 mph fastball against Braun was a completely insane idea, but Volquez executed it to perfection last night.
Volquez still has a ways to go this year, and the only way that he’s going to assuage anyone’s concerns about him is going to be by simply pitching consistently. He’s been really impressive thus far, though. Not only is he throwing lots of strikes, getting ahead of batters, and working efficiently, but he’s also being asked to make tough pitches by his catcher and he’s executing them. It’s early, but I’ve been awfully impressed by what he’s shown so far.
Image credit: Brooks Baseball’s log of Volquez’s start last night