As you’ve most certainly heard, Edinson Volquez will start in Colorado tonight, setting up Hyun-jin Ryu (now on six days rest), Zack Greinke, & Clayton Kershaw to face Cincinnati this weekend. Chris Capuano will now likely start against Arizona next week.
If that sounds terrifying, it should. Volquez is awful pretty much everywhere, and especially so in Coors Field, where he’s given up a career line of .349/.441/.568 in seven appearances — including 21 earned runs and 35 baserunners in 21.1 innings over three starts there in 2013 alone. When you’ve got an insurmountable lead like the Dodgers do in the NL West, you can afford to experiment a little, but there’s really never a time when you want to simply give away a game.
Of course, that’s not how the Dodgers view this. It’s not like they’re just expecting Volquez to be magically better because he’s wearing a lighter shade of blue, and we’re hearing all sorts of things about “mechanical adjustments” and “tipping pitches” that the team thinks he can improve upon.
More specifically, Tony Jackson spoke to Volquez a few days ago, and came away with this:
Volquez, whom I had never met before tonight but who seems like a really jovial, happy-go-lucky guy, said after the game that the only adjustment he has made so far since signing with the Dodgers was to switch from the third-base side of the rubber to the first-base side, which was the side he pitched from for Cincinnati in 2008 when he was a National League All-Star. That, of course, begs the question of why he switched to the third-base side in the first place. So I asked him that question. And he said it was basically something he did unconsciously.
Jackson’s reporting is above reproach, so I believe he captured the conversation accurately, but it’s interesting that Volquez said he switched “unconsciously,” because as this article from the San Diego Union-Tribune back in June indicates…
Fresh off the worst start of his career, RHP Edinson Volquez struck out a season-high nine batters over seven innings. He allowed just one run on six hits and three walks and threw 68 of his 107 pitches for strikes. So, why was he so good after he was so bad last week in Colorado (2.1 IP, 9 ER)? He said he moved from the first base side of the rubber toward third base to create a better path toward the plate.
…he was specifically asked by the Padres to do so. Either way, this all sounds like a thing we can test, and perhaps even see if there’s a correlation to success, so let’s go right ahead and do that.
From the wonderful BrooksBaseball, we can look at his horizontal release points over the years, and… oh, my.
So right off the bat, it seems like we might be on to something here. Volquez looked to be relatively consistent until the latter part of 2011, then way off to the side with his horizontal release point in 2012 and for most of this year, though it’s been trending back down. It’s also not as simple as saying that’s the issue, because he wasn’t very good between 2009-11, either.
We can see this in practice, too. Since 2008 was referenced in the Jackson quote, let’s look there. It’s a little difficult to find video from that year because the MLB.tv archives don’t go back that far, and most of the video I could dig up from that year is pretty grainy, but we can at least look at September 8 in Milwaukee:
He’s not really all that far to the first base side, actually pitching from more of the middle of the rubber. In 2009, Volquez made only nine inconsistent starts before blowing out his elbow and requiring Tommy John surgery, then was suspended for 50 games during his recovery in 2010 after testing positive for PEDs. (Not that anyone cares about that because he isn’t Alex Rodriguez or Ryan Braun, but that’s another discussion entirely.)
I looked at video from each season following 2008, but I won’t bore you with the details because as the graph above shows, he never really changes his position, despite the results changing dramatically. Finally in 2012 with San Diego, we can see a change, one that carried over to this year with the Padres, where he’s hard to the first base side…
That echoes the chart, though, according to this Ken Gurnick story, it now appears it’s less about where he pitches from, but how:
Manager Don Mattingly, however, said mechanical adjustments Volquez has worked on with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt are more focused on keeping him on line to the plate, instead of spinning off toward first base.
…although from the same story, Volquez says it’s about his hands:
On the video we saw different mechanics. We worked a lot on hiding the ball. You can tell the difference with my hands. We’ll see if I can do what they want me to do.
So Volquez has struggled because he’s tipping his pitches. Or he’s too far to the third base side of the rubber. Or too far to the first base side of the rubber. Or because he’s not “on line to the plate”. Or because he’s not hiding the ball with his hands. Or because he’s a guy who has been in the big leagues since 2005 and has had a FIP below 4.00 exactly once, with never-ending control problems.
Frankly, this sounds like throwing everything you can think of at the wall with him and hoping it will stick, and I can’t say I’m all that optimistic about it, especially in Coors Field. But then again, this team does have a huge lead, and I have no problem with adding another arm to the rotation to give the primary foursome some additional rest. Better Volquez take the heat in the most nightmarish park in America than Hyun-jin Ryu, right, and Stephen Fife can’t really be counted on right now either. If, as I fear, Volquez goes out and gets knocked out in 1.2 innings, well, you have a million guys in the expanded September bullpen to pick up the slack and a day off tomorrow anyway. What the hell, might as well make this last month interesting, I suppose?