In moments of crisis last season, Edinson Volquez recalls bearing down on a catcher who would not look at him.
Russell Martin might gaze into the Pittsburgh dugout. He might peer into the stands. He might study his shin guards. Anything to slow Volquez’s breakneck pace and steady his unreliable delivery.
Volquez understood the implicit message. He resurrected his career with Martin, enough to convince the Royals to sign him to a two-year, $20 million contract this winter. He conveyed this strategy to his new catcher, two-time All Star Salvador Perez.
“That’s what I’m trying to say to Salvy,” Volquez said. “Just look around, give me some time. Shut me down. Sometimes pitchers just want to go fast and throw the pitch.”
This problem cursed Volquez for much of his career. His style so vexed San Diego in 2013 that the club simply cut him in August. He found a cure last year in Pittsburgh, and finished with a career-best 3.04 ERA in 192 2/3 innings. The formula for success involved mechanical alterations made by Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage and tutelage behind the plate by Martin.
Volquez joins a Kansas City organization well-stocked in both those categories. Dave Eiland is considered one of the game’s best pitching coaches. And Perez has demonstrated a game-calling capacity that exceeds his age. Yet the onus for a repeat performance falls upon Volquez, one of the game’s more confounding talents.
“The bottom line is the pitcher has to have conviction,” Eiland said. “And he has to have body awareness to repeat and get to his proper arm slot consistently.”
Volquez, 31, has started slowly here in camp. He yielded six runs in four innings in an 8-4 loss to Milwaukee on Wednesday. His Cactus League ERA resides at 9.72. To hear Royals officials tell it, they believe Volquez discovered a route to better efficiency in 2014. He utilized a 93-mph sinker to generate groundballs at a 50.4 percent rate last season, the 21st best in the majors. The team expects him to benefit from the sturdy defense behind him.
Still, a study of last year’s statistics suggests regression is possible. Volquez finished 2014 with a .263 batting average on balls in play, well below his .298 career average, which suggests a succession of good luck. Rival scouts worry about his ability to consistently throw strikes.
The Royals are not unaware of these concerns. Yost believes Volquez benefited from canny defensive shifting by the Pirates, who have become the industry’s vanguard in that area. Yost expects his defenders to deploy their own shifts based on scouting and the club’s analytics department. Eiland has emphasized to Volquez the necessity of repeating his delivery.
“What we’ve really focused on is his timing, getting the ball out of his glove on time, so his arm gets in the proper slot,” Eiland said. “And therefore, he gets that good late movement down in the zone. It’s easier to command it that way.”
Eiland added, “He’s got a lot of movement on his pitches. But he’s got to start those pitches on the plate, let them run to the edges. When he gets in trouble is when he tries to start pitches on the outer third, and they run off the plate.”
Volquez always flashed immense ability. He headlined the two-man package Texas sent to Cincinnati in exchange for future American League MVP Josh Hamilton after the 2007 season. Volquez rewarded the Reds with a sterling rookie campaign, with 206 strikeouts in 196 innings, and looked set on a path to stardom.
His ulnar collateral ligament betrayed him in 2009. He did not return from Tommy John surgery full-time until 2011. During the next three seasons, Volquez posted a 5.07 ERA for three different teams. He devolved into one of the game’s most maddening pitchers, unable to repeat his delivery, flinging free passes at an alarming rate. He led all qualified starting pitchers with 4.82 walks per nine innings from 2011 to 2013.
“I don’t know if he nibbled,” manager Ned Yost said. “I just think that in his mechanics, he’s got a tendency to drift a little bit. It’s harder to get his arm out front. It just creates more pitches up in the zone, which elevates your pitch count. When he’s right, he’s staying back and driving the ball down in the zone.”
Volquez found this groove as a Pirate. He is still working to find it as a Royal in the dry air and inhospitable conditions of the Cactus League.
With two outs in the first inning Wednesday, Volquez threw three consecutive balls to Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy. Perez gave his pitcher time to decompress. He looked toward his bench and let Volquez circle the mound. Perez stared at his feet as Volquez stood atop the rubber with the ball in his bare hand. Then Perez signaled for a fastball and raised his glove.
Volquez pumped a sinker for a strike. Lucroy fouled back two more.
Then Volquez threw a fastball in the dirt.
After Lucroy’s walk, Volquez opened with three more balls to the next batter, Adam Lind. Lind chopped a single. Khris Davis laced an RBI double. An inning that appeared brief would require 22 pitches.
Two innings later, with a pair of men aboard and Gerardo Parra at the plate, Perez called for a changeup. Volquez shook him off. Parra deposited the subsequent fastball over the right-field fence.
Volquez could smile about the mistake afterward. He spent some time watching his mechanics on video as the Royals finished up their game.
“Now I know what I was doing wrong,” Volquez said. “Hopefully in the next couple days, I can put it together.”