Volquez leads Pirates in team’s second straight one-game playoff


By Jeremy Tepper / Staff Writer

Baseball fans are a stubborn bunch. Some will stick to long-held beliefs forever. Others will embrace new logic and won’t accept anything to the contrary. And almost all of them are uncompromising in changing their predisposed beliefs on a player or team.

I’m like any other baseball fan in most ways, especially on the latter point. Despite incredible recent performances by a player on the Pirates, for example, I will still argue that an established, consistent player should get a start ahead of him, just because the first player may have been shaky in the past. 

Edinson Volquez starts for the Pirates today in their one-game playoff against the San Francisco Giants, Yet because of  previous beliefs, I can’t get myself to trust him, as he is a perfect example of the first player I described.

Volquez has done essentially everything he needed to do to earn my trust. For the season, he finished with a 13-7 record, 3.04 ERA (15th in the National League), .235 BAA and 140 strikeouts in 192.2 innings. He got better as the year went on, improving his 3.65 pre-All Star break ERA to a 2.20 post-break ERA. And he finished hot, allowing only one earned run in his last three starts (21 innings) and closing the season off with two shutouts, striking out ten in seven innings in his last start.

Still, when I think of Volquez, I think of his previous five seasons as much as I think of this one. I think of how he consistently struggled with control, never posting an ERA better than 4.14. Mostly, I remember how downright awful he was last season, with a 5.71 ERA and .282 BAA. His ERA was the worst among all qualified starting pitchers.

When the Pirates signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal, I was infuriated. “They signed the worst pitcher in the majors to replace A.J. Burnett,” I thought. The Pirates like to dig in the dumpster, but why go straight to the underlings? 

As it turns out, the Pirates pitching coach, Ray Searage, is a miracle worker. He found a way for Volquez to harness his well-above-average pitching potential and turn it into ground balls and strikeouts when he needs them. He rubbed some of his luck on him too, as Volquez has posted a .263 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), sixth-best in the majors and well down from his typical rates. Outlier seasons like this are mostly seen as lucky.

Although Volquez has been really good this season, he’s also been really lucky. Will that luck end today? If this season’s results have been any indicator, it won’t.

No one would have ever predicted Josh Harrison transforming from borderline bench player to all-star or Russell Martin becoming arguably the best catcher in the majors. Certainly, most wouldn’t have foreseen the Pirates becoming one of the best teams in the majors after sitting on their thumbs in the offseason and again at the trade deadline. And no one expected this from Volquez after his previous season. 

Despite my doubts in Volquez, what reason is there to believe he can’t continue his quality pitching? He’s done it all year, so why can’t he do it again today?

It also helps that the Pirates simply have “it” this season. It pains me to use such an intangible term, but these Pirates are different. They’re a special team. Individually and collectively, they’ve continued to defy odds and logic. If there’s any statistic to define this quality, the Pirates’ numerous come-from-behind and one-run victories do it. Whether it’s luck or not, the great teams are able to win close games. 

The great teams also have talent to match. Four Pirates — Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Martin and Harrison — ranked in the top 35 within the MLB in Wins Above Replacement (WAR). Their offense finished fourth in runs in the National League, while their pitching finished fifth and got progressively better throughout the year. 

Today, they’ll face off against Madison Bumgarner on the San Francisco Giants, one of the best lefthanders in baseball. The Pirates will oppose him with an offense composed mostly of righties. The last time they faced Bumgarner, they chased him in four innings, generating five runs on six hits. Volquez hasn’t pitched against them this year, though the Giants hit righties at an average to below average clip. From a matchup perspective, the Pirates seem to have an advantage.

With the matchup combined with the Pirates’ “it” factor, I’ll say the Pirates win this game. I’ve doubted them all year, and they’ve continued to prove me wrong. Maybe I’m caught up in the hysteria, but the Pirates have luck on their side, on top of talent. When a team has both of those factors working for them, it tends to win games.

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