Volquez thriving with fresh start
Despite perfect April, talented starter still a work in progress
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
ST. LOUIS -- A fresh start in Cincinnati, where he's been given the chance to use his talent and reach his potential? Young Reds starting pitcher Edinson Volquez couldn't ask for much more.
And the Reds couldn't be more pleased with Volquez's results. Brandishing his mid-to-high 90s heat and some effective offspeed stuff, he finished April with a 4-0 record in five starts.
Volquez's 1.23 ERA is tops in the National League, and second in the Majors. The 24-year-old right-hander has 16 walks, compared to 33 strikeouts. Opponents are batting just .198 off of him. His 10.13 strikeouts per nine innings ratio is fourth best in the NL as he awaits his next start on Friday at Atlanta.
"He looks like he's having fun pitching," Reds manager Dusty Baker said. "I'd be having fun, too, if I was 4-0."
The fun really started for Volquez as a youth ballplayer in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, when he more or less lucked into the game. An invitation to baseball came from a school friend who played the Dominican equivalent of Little League.
"He told me one day, 'Hey, you want to go to the game?'" Volquez recalled. "I said, 'What game?' He said, 'I play baseball.' I said alright. After that, I told my Dad that I wanted to play baseball. The owner from the league came to my house and we started talking about baseball. I was like 10 years old."
The son of a homemaker mother and father that worked as a mechanic, Volquez first cut his teeth in the game as a shortstop, but became a pitcher when he was 15 years old.
"They asked me one day if I wanted to pitch. One day I tried it," Volquez said. "We threw and they said you're not going to play shortstop anymore. When I was 15, I threw 82-83 mph. Five months later, it was 86-87."
By the time he was 18, Volquez had signed a contract with the Rangers in 2002.
Quickly a prospect for the pitching-starved Texas organization, Volquez had three Minor League seasons in the lower Minors before his development suddenly went into hyperdrive.
Following a three-level ascension that started in High A ball, Volquez was rushed to the Majors and was pitching for the Rangers by the final month of the 2005 season. In the three different stints with the Rangers, he was 3-11 with a 7.20 ERA in 20 games, including 17 starts.
"I was always up for one month," Volquez said on Wednesday after finishing a side session at Busch Stadium. "I wanted to do something good because the next year I was trying to make the team."
The last demotion from Texas sent him all the way back to Class A Bakersfield, where he was pitching at this time last season. The Rangers were hoping Volquez could fix his fastball command issues and grow up in a plan similar to one the Blue Jays once employed with future ace Roy Halladay, who responded by becoming the 2003 American League Cy Young Award winner.
A seemingly constant yo-yo motion of his career, especially the big demotion, never sat well with Volquez.
"I kept going back and forth," Volquez said. "You do something good, like I did in Triple-A, you get to the big leagues. The next year at Spring Training, they sent me all the way back to [Class] A ball. There was no reason."
Results with Texas aside, the Reds valued Volquez so highly that they were willing to deal another promising future star in outfielder Josh Hamilton to get him in December. It was an unpopular trade with Reds fans, who gravitated to Hamilton's back story and long comeback from years out of the game because of drugs.
Through one month into this season, Hamilton is thriving with the Rangers and is among AL leaders in multiple offensive categories. Yet the backlash from the trade has diminished because Volquez has been sensational.
"I'm glad we have Volquez, I'll tell you that," Baker said. "I didn't have Hamilton, but I'm sure Texas is glad they have Hamilton. That's a trade. Everybody wants to know who got the best of the trade. When you trade something, it should be the best for both. I know we're happy with him."
Cincinnati received a more refined version of the upstart prospect that never made it beyond the big league cusp in Texas. Except for some fine tuning from instructor Mario Soto and pitching coach Dick Pole, there has been less tinkering and more pitching since Volquez became a Red.
"I knew Volquez in Texas and that he had good stuff," said former Rangers and current Reds closer Francisco Cordero, a Volquez mentor. "He's showing it right now. He's more mature. He's worked hard and is in great shape."
Volquez isn't a finished product, however. In his first few starts, he was unable to get deep into games because of high pitch counts. But in the last couple of outings, he has gained more distance.
In Sunday's 10-1 win over the Giants, Volquez struck out a career-high 10 batters over seven innings while throwing 104 pitches, 71 for strikes.
"He listens," Baker said. "He's around some great guys that help him [like] Mario Soto in Spring Training, Cordero and Dick Pole here. [Catcher Paul] Bako helps lead him through games. He's a happy person, but a highly competitive happy person."
Like fellow countryman, teammate and roommate Johnny Cueto, Volquez pitched his way into the Reds rotation with a stellar Spring Training. Cueto, 22, had a meteoric start to his rookie season before recently running to a bumpy stretch.
Volquez and Cueto have a tremendous burden to carry because much of the Reds' contending hopes come down to their talents. The team will likely go farther if they pitch well.
Unlike his time in Texas, this burden doesn't come with a stress over whether he can succeed.
"I'm confident right now," Volquez said. "I don't think about if I pitch bad, will I get sent down? I don't have any pressure right now."