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Commission the Ray Searage statue … and the game’s pace problem

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SOUTH HILLS – One of the most interesting developments this April, for me, is this number: 1.7. That’s Edinson Volquez’s walk rate.

It’s too early to know if Volquez has truly been fixed.  We only have a 21-inning sample size. But I’m also not sure Volquez has had a stretch of control like this since his All-Star rookie year, or perhaps ever.

Volque’z walk rates the last four seasons:

2010: 5.03

2011: 5.38

2012: 5.17

2013: 4.07

His career walk rate is one of the worst among active pitchers at 4.68.

Despite all that, the Pirates saw a pitcher with a wipeout changeup (11 percent whiff rate with the pitch for his career), a solid curveball and above-average fastball velocity this offseason. If they could fix one element – his fastball command – they thought they might have Liriano 2.0. So gambled $5 million.

The Pirates were in large part willing to make the gamble because they knew they had just the man who can fix faulty fastball command in Ray Searage.

Searage improved the command of both Liriano and A.J. Burnett in back-to-back seasons. He and Jim Benedict had helped Charlie Morton with his throwing motion, allowing him to discover his effective two-seam fastball. Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli rebounded under Searage.

Now, Volquez was thought to be Searage’s biggest challenge to date as he’s had little success since his rookie seasons. Three straight seasons of 5+ walk rates seems to speak of a pitcher who will never be able to command the strike zone.

Searage worked with Volquez on a more direct path to home plate this spring, which we have documented before. The primary goal was to eliminate movement in regard to his eyes. It seems to be working. And let’s remember it’s not just the message with Searage it’s how he communicates the message.

“Maybe it’s because I have empathy,” Searage said this March. “I’ve been in their shoes. That’s what I think it is. … I don’t want these guy to go through the same things I went through. I want them to keep their identities. It’s not like I went to school or anything to study for it, it just evolved over time.”

For his career Volquez throws first-pitch, non-swinging strikes at a 32 percent rate with this sinker. This year that rate has spiked to 52 percent.

Take a look at these tables from Brooks Baseball Brooks Baseball:

All Pitch Outcomes – from 03/30/2007 to 04/18/2014

Pitch Type Count Ball Strike Swing Foul Whiffs BIP GB LD FB PU HR
Fourseam 3851 37.21% 28.90% 39.73% 16.65% 7.43% 16.26% 6.60% 2.78% 5.45% 1.43% 0.81%
Sinker 3874 38.46% 23.77% 42.77% 17.73% 6.27% 19.18% 9.55% 4.39% 4.52% 0.72% 0.62%
Change 3672 37.69% 31.35% 49.73% 14.73% 19.39% 15.85% 8.09% 3.49% 3.49% 0.79% 0.60%
Curve 2818 43.75% 33.50% 32.97% 10.01% 11.04% 12.10% 6.99% 2.48% 2.24% 0.39% 0.21%

All Pitch Outcomes – from 01/01/2014 to 01/01/2015

Pitch Type Count Ball Strike Swing Foul Whiffs BIP GB LD FB PU HR
Fourseam 29 20.69% 34.48% 48.28% 17.24% 6.90% 24.14% 13.79% 3.45% 6.90% 0.00% 3.45%
Sinker 105 24.76% 33.33% 42.86% 20.00% 3.81% 20.95% 9.52% 8.57% 2.86% 0.00% 0.00%
Change 55 38.18% 20.00% 50.91% 21.82% 14.55% 20.00% 9.09% 5.45% 3.64% 1.82% 0.00%
Curve 85 36.47% 25.88% 52.94% 10.59% 16.47% 25.88% 14.12% 2.35% 8.24% 1.18% 0.00%

Volquez, as you can see above, is throwing his fastball for a higher percentage of strikes as a Pirate, though his command with his offspeed pitches has not been quite as good early this season.

Still, it’s about the fastball and Volquez’s April is one of the most encouraging things to date for the Pirates.

(Another encouraging thing is Pedro Alvarez now has as many opposite-field home runs – 3 – as he did all of last season).

DOES BASEBALL NEED A PACEMAKER?

Some interesting research from over at Baseball Prospectus regarding the sport’s pace problem. As you can see from the chart below the pace (seconds between pitches) and overall time of the game continues to increase. Moreover, strikeouts are on the rise, meaning total pitches are on the rise.

Year Pace (s) Time of Game (min)
2010 20.34 174.8
2011 20.38 176.6
2012 21.05 180.2
2013 21.19 184.2
2014 21.17 187.2

I don’t have a problem with limited instant replay. My biggest concern is not the interpretation of rules – this will get eventually be ironed out – my concern was with pace of the game. Replay adds several additions stopages to the flow of the game. There is already too much standing around, too much walking around the mound and stepping out of the batter’s box in the sport.

I’d like to see the batter’s box treated more like a box. Once a batter steps in, he cannot step out,  unless he receives time from an umpire as a pitcher waits obnoxiously long between pitches. So would end the practice swings between every pitch. A routine. I seriously doubt has much impact upon success.

Baseball does have a pace problem and it’s something that the sport would be wise to address.

– TS

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