On a course for change
Adding changeup the first of many (good) changes for Volquez
BY PAUL DAUGHERTY | PDAUGHERTY@ENQUIRER.COM
Long, slender fingers grip the baseball along the seams. Middle finger, ring finger, right hand. Edinson Volquez positions them slightly on or off the seams, a fraction of an inch to either side, depending on whether the hitter bats right- or left-handed.
"I keep my fingers straight," Volquez is saying. "With a lefty (hitter), I turn the ball a little this way. With a righty, I just move it a little bit to the other side."
The changeup is baseball's best parlor trick. It's an anatomical illusion. If you can throw a 95 mile-an-hour fastball that is a missile in the fog, then follow it with an 80 mile-an-hour change that looks like a missile in the fog, the hitter will resemble a drill bit in a piece of pine, corkscrewing holes in the batter's box.
This is what Volquez has done this spring. He throws a slider and a curveball, too, but the fastball and change have put his name in the national footlights and his ERA at 1.12. He pitches today against Cleveland lefty Cliff Lee, who is 6-0 with a ridiculous 0.67 ERA. The early season returns suggest Juan Marichal vs. Sandy Koufax.
A pitching coach in a summer league in his hometown of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, taught Volquez the changeup. Volquez was 15, a typical kid pitcher: All heat, no subtlety. He was (and is) a free spirit. The fastball fit his personality. The change? Not so much.
"I was afraid to throw it," he says now. "It was slow, you know? I was 15 years old, throwing 92, 93" mph. "I thought (hitters) would kill it."
The coach advised him that no pitcher makes it to the major leagues with only one pitch. And, there was this: Volquez's hero, fellow Dominican Pedro Martinez, was mowing them down in Boston, mixing changeups with his fastball. For a kid whose nickname was "Pedrito" (Little Pedro), agreeing to add the pitch wasn't hard.
"It took me a couple months to get comfortable with it," Volquez says. "Then, no problem."
Volquez's changeup works so well because the speed of his arm stays the same, no matter the pitch. For a hitter, it's like trying to time an Indy car with a sundial. When you see them lunge and miss, you know they were thinking 95 miles an hour, and got 80 instead.
"Same arm speed, every pitch," Volquez acknowledges.
Irony has its place in this story. All Latin-born baseball players are subject to change: Names, ages, languages, cultures, speeds. Edinson Volquez once went by the name Julio Reyes, assumed the nickname Pedrito, claimed he was 18 months younger than he really was, quickly learned basic English to cope in the States and, not coincidentally, developed a changeup that has him on an All-Star path.
"We adapt," is what Volquez says about that. "First thing is to learn English. Then follow the rules."
A recent profile on ESPN.com described the frustration of the Texas Rangers, as they tried to reel in their pitching prodigy. To the Rangers, Volquez was much the same pitcher at 22 that he was at 15: High energy, low focus. To get Edinson's mind right, the Rangers dumped him from the majors to Single-A, with a few rules. Among them:
Run on and off the field in 12 seconds or less.
On days he started, talk to no one but the catcher, manager and pitching coach. "That was a hard one," Volquez says now. "I like to talk."
Keep his shirt tucked in.
Write down a plan for the hitters he'd be facing.
Shave his dread-locked head with a No. 2 blade.
"A number-two blade?" I asked.
"Yeah, I think it was number two. Whatever. It was crazy for me, for a little while. I used to be able to do everything I wanted to do," Volquez says, before praising the Rangers for cracking the whip. "I took everything seriously. I started to respect the game. It was good for me."
An agent also had advised Volquez to change his name and lie about his age, telling him younger players got more money to sign. Volquez shrugs at being known as Julio Reyes when the Rangers signed him in 2001. It's just what Latin players do sometimes. And he is 24 years old. He swears it.
It's 4 in the afternoon. The Reds clubhouse is quiet, save for the bantering in Spanish between Volquez and Reds closer Francisco Cordero. A gold chain thicker than a bicycle chain hangs from his neck. His smile is as persistent as sunrise.
Cordero, a 10-year veteran and two-time all-star born in Santo Domingo, has become a godfather of sorts to Volquez and Johnny Cueto, Cincinnati's other Dominican starter. "Be on time and prepare yourself" is his advice. "I definitely prepared my mind for this season." Volquez says. "I don't care who I face, just throw my best pitch."
Between them, the two kid pitchers had eight of the Reds' first 19 wins, causing fans to be optimistic about Cincinnati's pitching staff. Talk about changeups.