Volquez is Pirates' latest reclamation project
BRADENTON, Fla. — Edinson Volquez shares many traits with the 2013 version of Francisco Liriano.
Both Liriano and Volquez arrived in Bradenton, Fla., with above-average velocity. Both pitchers arrived with an elite off-speed pitch and an ability to produce ground balls.
But both came to the Pirates as enigmas, coming off ineffective seasons despite their raw talent. Volquez posted the worst ERA (5.71) among qualified starters last season, despite pitching most of the year at pitcher-forgiving Petco Park.
Does Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage see similarities between Liriano and Volquez?
“Oh, gosh, yes,” Searage said Wednesday.
Under Searage, Liriano transformed from a bargain free-agent signing to a pitcher receiving Cy Young votes in 2013. With Volquez, the Pirates and Searage again are hoping to practice baseball alchemy. If Volquez can find his previous form, he would help fill the void left by A.J. Burnett's departure.
The similarities between Volquez and Liriano don't end with their raw stuff and statistical profile. The likeness extends to the way they throw. When Liriano came to the Pirates, he had a habit of spinning out of his delivery and falling toward third base, similar to Volquez's errant motion.
“He's trying to throw the baseball with the front side,” Searage said. “The front side will lead you to the promised land, but (the back side) will take you to it. ... The biggest thing is finding that key like we did with Liriano and getting him to be consistent and hit that key every time he throws. We have identified it. But he has to be able to retain it. ... We are not trying to do too much. (Volquez) has already tried to overdo some things, and we have spoken about it.”
Volquez struggled with control in his Monday start, walking two and allowing one run in two innings. He will throw an extra bullpen session prior to his next start Sunday while Searage works with him on reinforcing a more direct motion to the plate.
Liriano and Volquez's similar mechanical flaw led to a similar issue: throwing first-pitch strikes at below-average rates.
In 2012, Liriano threw first-pitch strikes 52.5 percent of the time, well below the major league average of 58 percent. In 2013, Liriano's first-pitch strike rate jumped to 65.1 percent. By getting ahead in the count, Liriano's slider and changeup became more effective put-away weapons.
Volquez has struggled with control throughout his career, averaging 4.7 walks per nine innings. He threw first-pitch strikes at a 55.6 percent clip last year. The Pirates are hoping he can copy Liriano's jump in first-pitch strike percentage.
Liriano helped sell Volquez on the Pirates and Searage this offseason.
“Frankie told me a lot of good things about the coaches here,” Volquez said. “He struggled the year before, and you see the year he had last year. He was great. I took a chance to sign here and try to do the same thing.”
The same thing would mean a return to being a top-of-the-rotation pitcher, which Volquez hasn't been since he went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA with the Reds in 2008, striking out 206 batters in 196 innings. Like Liriano, his career was derailed by Tommy John surgery in 2009.
“I was out for one year. I lost everything,” Volquez said. “When you don't touch the mound for one year, it's tough to get back to the way it was.”
The Pirates can't get every pitcher back to what he was. Liriano worked out last season. The Jonathan Sanchez experiment did not. Still, when Searage watched video of Volquez this offseason, he saw changeups dive, he saw a fastball touch 97 mph. He saw another opportunity.
Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.
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