Volquez earning 'Little Pedro' nickname on the mound
By Amy K. Nelson
If any player is predisposed to having identity issues, it might be Edinson Volquez. Over the years, his baseball card has listed two different birthplaces and his name has gone from Julio Reyes to Edison Volquez and finally to his current moniker, Edinson.
"We believe his age is accurate," one of his agents, Bill Shupper, quipped.
There is one more name, though, that is far more meaningful. It is the one Volquez is perhaps most proud of: "Pedrito."
Volquez first garnered the "Little Pedro" nickname in his native Dominican Republic, and it has become part of his biography. For a boy who idolized countryman Pedro Martinez, there is no higher compliment.
"He's in love with Pedro," said teammate Francisco Cordero. "He sees Pedro like he's a god. He's not trying to be like Pedro, and the good thing is he's not trying to imitate him. He's just trying to do his job."
So far this season, Volquez, 24, has been doing it better than nearly everyone else. Through Monday, Volquez is 5-1 and leading the National League in ERA (1.06) and tied for second in strikeouts (52). This is from a player who wasn't even guaranteed a spot in the Reds' rotation when he was traded by the Rangers along with pitcher Danny Herrera this winter in a deal for outfielder Josh Hamilton.
But Volquez earned a spot with a stellar spring and so far this season has been one of the bright spots on the last-place Reds. He's even outpitched teammate Johnny Cueto, whom some teammates and scouts say has better stuff and who was the talk of spring training.
"I'm really happy for him," said Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, who made the trade. "He's an outstanding person. It's easier to watch [because of] what Josh has done for us."
The trade has worked out well, with Hamilton leading the AL in RBIs (39) and in the top 15 in batting average (.303) through Monday. But the Reds got a young starter with endless upside.
"I don't know if I can say it, but I'm going to say it: The Texas Rangers made a mistake in trading him away," said Cordero, the Reds closer who was once traded away from Texas. "I don't know if people know that Texas is not a place where free-agent pitchers are going to go. If you've got a lot of guys that are good and young, you don't let them go."
At a recent dinner between the Reds' Paul Bako, Scott Hatteberg and Josh Fogg, the players discussed how Cueto and Volquez have relatively gone under the radar.
"If they were in New York or Boston," said catcher Bako, "they'd be household names by now."
The piece of paper had more than a dozen itemized rules, and Volquez was asked to sign it in spring training last year, agreeing to the conditions during his stay in the minor leagues. Going from the majors to high Class-A Bakersfield was demoralizing and a long way from when Volquez was rated the Rangers' No. 1 prospect by Baseball America in 2006.
The Rangers were frustrated by what they perceived as Volquez's lack of focus. He lacked any sort of routine, really; in between starts he'd sit on the bench looking uninterested in what was happening on the field. He'd wear his pants baggy, his jersey untucked and his hat propped atop his dreadlocks. In the Rangers' minds, he wasn't acting like a professional.
He certainly wasn't pitching like one; Volquez was coming off a 2006 season in which his career numbers climbed to 1-11 with a 9.20 ERA. Since 1900, no pitcher with at least 10 career starts has finished with an ERA of nine or higher.
"We wanted him to take his ability and translate it into being a professional," Daniels said. "He was at a crossroads in his career."
Mario Soto, a fellow Dominican pitcher who's in the Reds Hall of Fame, has counseled both Cueto and Volquez. He thinks Volquez was fast-tracked to the majors, and didn't adjust.
"His head got big," said Soto, who heads Cincinnati's operations in the Dominican. "Not everybody's prepared for that."
The Rangers met with Volquez in mid-March 2007, outlining its plan for him. He'd start in Class A. He would graduate to the next level if certain requirements were met.
"I was pissed off," Volquez said about being sent down.
It's easy to see why. Among the rules he had to follow:
• Run on and off the field within 12 seconds.
• On days he pitched, only speak to his catcher, manager and pitching coach.
• Write down a plan for the nine hitters.
• Use a No. 2 blade when shaving his head.
• Throw 60 percent first-pitch strikes.
• On 80 percent of 0-1, 0-2 counts, throw an action pitch, or quality purpose pitch.
• Chart pitches on days he is not starting.
• Always have his shirt tucked in, and his pants tidy.
Any violation of those rules would result in a $250 fine and a possible skip in the rotation. At first, Volquez was dejected, then his attitude brightened and his drive to get back to the majors became intense.
"The best thing I did was I never stopped working," he said.
A window into Volquez's humor can be taken from the lesson. When the Rangers told Volquez he needed to cut his cherished hair, Volquez went into the clubhouse and asked teammates Vicente Padilla and Joaquin Benoit how much they'd pay him to chop it off. Padilla and Benoit thought he'd never do it.
The bounty reached a few thousand dollars before Volquez settled. He shaved his head and was paid handsomely, then confessed.
"He's a pretty intelligent guy," Daniels said. "Very persuasive."
Volquez was signed by Texas in 2001 at age 17 for roughly $20,000, though a scout told him he had to change his name to Julio Reyes and shave a year and a half off his age.
"A lot of the players in the Dominican change their name," said Volquez, whose name was revealed after an immigration crackdown in 2003. "If you go one year lower, you're gonna get more money. It's all about money."
He laughs. Volquez's energy seems boundless, and he's often described as either a "free spirit" or "crazy" (in a good way). He speaks openly and with humor, and his English is far better than many players who've been in this country longer. He approached the Rangers last year and told them he needed an "n" added to his name; he actually liked Edison better, but he was born Edinson. (To this day, his agents still call him Edison; teammates usually call him Volkie).
When asked what it was like living with another name, and whether he forgot when people addressed him by Julio, he shakes his head and smiles.
"I was ready, I had that on my mind all the time," he said. "Some guys forgot their names. You'd say 'Hey, Eddie, Eddie!' They didn't pay attention or turn back. I was ready. I was ready all the time."
His personality, he said, comes from his mother, who was a teacher and also worked with the elderly at the local hospital. Volquez has three older sisters and a younger brother, and said his father worked as a mechanic. Unlike many players from the Dominican, Volquez grew up middle class and his first love was basketball. He said he admired Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
Basketball might have been his passion, but so, too, was watching Pedro Martinez pitch. Every Martinez game was televised back home in Santo Domingo, and the games became events. One time when he had to miss one of Martinez's starts, his father taped it for him so he could watch it when he returned home.
"The day he pitched?" Volquez said. "You don't go anywhere."
His favorite memory of Martinez is when the pitcher struck out 17 at Yankee Stadium in 1999. Volquez was 16 on that September night, and in awe. The next day, he pasted the front-page Pedro cover of the local newspaper on the wall in his bedroom. It's still there.
Volquez even started to mimic his idol. He already had a lanky body and long fingers, just like Martinez's. But he'd wear his hair short, just like Pedro's. If Petey's hair was long, so was Volkie's.
And, of course, the changeup became Volquez's signature pitch; he now throws it in the mid-80s while his fastball usually arrives between 94 and 97 mph. He hasn't allowed more than one earned run in each of his six starts, and he's doing it in a hitter's park. Bako calls Volquez a power pitcher who throws four pitches for strikes, with a good slider and curveball.
"It's pretty rare combination to have four true, good pitches," Bako said. "He can get guys out with all four pitches at almost any time."
Lenny Strelitz was a former minor league pitcher and former scouting director for the Rangers before becoming an agent. He and Shupper represent Volquez, and Strelitz credits Bako with guiding Volquez. Strelitz also thinks that Volquez's ability to throw all his pitches from the same, consistent arm slot has prevented hitters from distinguishing the difference between his fastball and changeup.
"His arm speed, you can't tell," said Jeff Brantley, a former major league pitcher and current broadcaster for the Reds. "I have to look at the gun. I've never had to do that. That's how good it is.
"I know when Pedro's throwing the changeup."
Volquez emulated Martinez's changeup grip and was happy to pass on his wisdom.
It was at a Denny's in April 2005 when Volquez and his agents went out to eat with a high school pitcher named Ryan Tucker. Sitting in the booth, Volquez demonstrated to Tucker how he grips his changeup. Tucker, who two months later was picked 35th overall in the draft by the Marlins, started using the same grip and is now among the Double-A Southern League leaders with a 0.97 ERA.
Asked what he admires most about Martinez, Volquez pauses and brings his hand to his chin. His answer is delivered slowly and softly, but comes as no surprise.
"Hmmmmm," Little Pedro said, a smile creasing his lips. "The changeup."