At first I thought Clint Hurdle was crazy. Why start Gerrit Cole on Sunday against Cincinnati, with just the possibility of winning the Central, when you could save him for the very real possibility of facing the Giants on Wednesday? It made no sense. Cole has the dominating presence with youth and the electric arm. Did the Pirates really want their season coming down to an Edinson Volquez start?
For his part, on Sunday afternoon Cole pitched like someone you’d want starting with your season on the line. After allowing a run in the first inning, he pitched an additional six scoreless, allowing four hits and striking out twelve. The Pirates may not have won that game, but Cole certainly wasn’t the reason why. Matching Johnny Cueto this season is no easy feat, but Cole did that for seven innings. Unfortunately, Cueto lasted one inning longer, leaving the game for Aroldis Chapman to close out the ninth.
There are plenty of numbers to support Volquez as the Bucs best starter. His 3.07 ERA is certainly very nice, second only to Vance Worley’s 2.73 in 82 more innings. Also, his ERA of 2.61 in the second half of the season is 13th in the NL while in September he’s been all but unhittable, allowing just 20 hits in 33 1/3 innings while striking out 31. His 1.08 ERA in the month is second in the NL, and he currently has an 18 inning scoreless streak that he brings with him into Wednesday’s matchup.
Maybe Hurdle is onto something here.
See, the Volquez I remember is the one who tore through the NL in 2008 with the Reds, posting a 17-6 record and striking out 206 batters. Then I recall all the times I wanted to kick myself over the years remembering that pitcher as he struggled to stay healthy or couldn’t keep opposing teams from scoring. He had to be the same guy who posted a 6.01 ERA for San Diego last year with a WHIP of 1.67, right?
Not this year.
Along with being what my wife called a “pretty pitcher,” which she explained as his aesthetically pleasing windup, he’s become another Pirates reclamation project joining castoffs such as A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano and being remade like Bucs pitching coach Ray Searage is now the Mike Holmes of MLB.1 In 2014, Volquez posted his best ERA+ since 2008 and the best ERA and WHIP of his career. He also tied 2008 with 14 hit batters and threw 15 wild pitches, which indicates to me he has a lot more movement on his pitches than in the last few seasons and he still has control issues, evidenced by that 3.32 BB/9 ratio, which is ninth worst in the NL for qualified starters. Eh. He’s not a control guy. Never was.
The good news for Volquez and the Pirates is the Giants aren’t really all that patient at the plate, ranking 11th in the NL with a 7% walk rate, or 427 non-intentional bases-on-balls. The Giants have just two players, Brandon Crawford and Hunter Pence, who have topped 50 walks for the season and none at 60+. They also don’t hit a lot of home runs or strike out all the much, which is great for Volquez since he doesn’t strike out that many batters (his rate of 6.54% K/9 is 31st for qualified starters in the NL, out of 43) or allow that many home runs (he’s ranked 18th in NL allowing 0.79 HR/9, just ahead of Cueto).
Volquez is also coming off probably his second most dominant pitching performance of this season last Thursday. He tore through a Braves lineup that looked more like the cast and crew from The Slugger’s Wife than a legitimate Major League lineup, but he struck out a season high 10, with some of those not just Emilio Bonifacio, and allowed just four hits in seven innings while walking just one. His fastball and sinker looked good, both sitting low 90s, with his curve having some real bite to it after those first few innings where it tended to hang all juicy in the middle of the plate.
So, yeah, Hurdle probably did the right thing based on the recent trends. If Volquez can stay effectively wild but not what the hell is happening here wild (he’s walked four or more five times this year) the Pirates should be set up quite nice with the possibility of Cole pitching Friday against the Nationals.
Thank you, Clint Hurdle, for teaching me a lesson on assuming things.