Less Than Steady Eddie

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In 2015, there was no steadier part of the Kansas City Royals rotation than Edinson Volquez. If there was a big game situation, Volquez was the man to turn to. You knew that if Volquez was on the mound, he was going to keep the Royals in the game and give them the best opportunity to win. But baseball can be a funny game and the joys of success one year can turn into the dread of failure in another. Volquez has struggled most of this year, posting a 5.02 ERA over 166 innings, with a 2.10 SO/W ratio, 4.39 FIP, 1.470 WHIP and an ERA+ of 88(20 points below last year’s 118). Volquez’s walk and strike out ratio are on par with last year’s totals, so what has changed for “Sexy Eddie” this year?

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My first instinct is to say most of it is based off of pitch location. Let’s first take a look at Volquez’s horizontal pitch location:

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Looking at both 2015 and 2016, it appears as if his hard stuff is fairly comparable, but there are some bigger differences between his breaking stuff and the off-speed pitches. The biggest change is in his offspeed stuff, which is leaning a bit more away this year, which might be a sign that he is leaving his offspeed pitches a bit more over the middle of the plate. Now a look at the vertical pitch location:

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This tells a bit different story and leans toward location being a big factor. While his breaking pitches appear to be at least moderately comparable to last year, Eddie does show he has kept the ball up a bit more this year, which can be a problem. It also seems he has been keeping his off-speed stuff down, which is a major positive. Volquez has made a consistent effort to keep his hard stuff down in the strike zone, as it has been on a decline since the beginning of the season, with a slight uptick this past month. There is one more locator factor that I wanted to take a look at:

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No pitcher wants to groove a pitch, or at least groove one and have the batter take advantage of it. This chart really shows that Volquez has been grooving more pitches this year, especially his hard stuff. Between that and the increase in grooved breaking balls, you can see why Volquez’s hits per 9 and home runs per 9 have both increased this year.

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This also lines up with how hard batters are hitting the ball off of Volquez:

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The graph shows that Volquez has been above league average quite often when it comes to exit velocity, but it also shows a lot of inconsistency this year. Week by week, Volquez seems to see his numbers drop or rise, with very little consistency showing up in his exit velocity numbers. This is a lot different from his 2015 exit velocity numbers:

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There are some big jumps here as well, but for the first four months last year, Volquez was pretty consistent when it came to the exit velocity off of his pitches. I don’t believe this is a change in velocity, as he has been not only really consistent in that regard this year, but very comparable to 2015 as well:

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So if it is not velocity, then it goes back to location and use of pitches:

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Volquez has been using his four-seam fastball much more this year than last, while also using his change-up less and less. This puzzles me quite a bit, since the changeup is Volquez’s out-pitch and has been a lethal pitch in his arsenal for years now. Batters have been hitting the ball harder off of Volquez in 2016 and just by seeing this chart it would appear that hitters are sitting on his hard stuff and laying off his off-speed pitches.

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With those numbers glaring at us, I tend to believe that batters are swinging earlier and more often against Volquez this year. Volquez has a higher contact rate against him this year (80.3% to 77.5%) while also racking up a higher percentage of pitches swung at as well (46.7% to 45.8%). The interesting part is that he has also thrown the same amount of strikes this year (64.0%) as last year while throwing less pitches per plate appearance (3.79 compared to 3.87 in 2015). This backs up my theory that hitters are swinging earlier in the count against Volquez, which seems to be what is happening. Batters are also putting the ball in play more against Eddie this year, 30.7% to 29.2% last year. This would seem to be backed up by the increase in his BAbip, which is risen from .293 to .317 this year. Hitters are not letting Volquez go deep in the count this year and are taking advantage of his early strikes, which are turning into more hits against him.

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The Royals have surged back into the playoff race this past month and in that span, Volquez has been the weakest link in the Kansas City rotation. If the Royals make the playoffs, one would really have to contemplate whether or not Volquez should be in the rotation, especially with his performance as of late (6.38 ERA over his last 8 starts). I would tend to think that if he started mixing in his change-up a bit more, he might start seeing better results and not have as many batters sitting on his fastball. Volquez has been a big part of this Royals team these last two seasons and if the team is serious about making it back to the playoffs, they need him to be on the top of his game. Right now, he is struggling just to be an average major league starter.

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