SAN DIEGO – Every year, he tries to learn something new. When Edinson Volquez first arrived in the United States, it was English. Ordering dinner was turning into a game of charades, so Volquez reached out to his rookie-league teammate Tim Cunningham, a Stanford graduate, and asked for tutelage.
Without it, Volquez would not have fully understood the expectation of him last season, when he learned his toughest lesson yet: embracing humility. He was a prospect then, long on talent, short on maturity, and when the Texas Rangers busted him down to Class A from the major-league roster – the real-world equivalent is a CEO-to-janitor demotion – he had a choice. Subvert his ego and follow the rules, or risk rendering all of his previous lessons moot.
And now he's here, 24 years old, back in the big leagues, sporting a different uniform (Cincinnati Reds), a different hairstyle (slight Afro), a different attitude (humbled) and, most noticeably, different results (superb … phenomenal … unfair – yeah, that about covers it).
Volquez's reclamation project provides the perfect, if underplayed, foil to that of the man for whom he was traded, Josh Hamilton. Like Hamilton, who enters Friday leading the American League in all three Triple Crown categories, Volquez, who starts Friday in San Diego, has posted eye-popping numbers: a major-league-best 1.33 earned-run average, the game's top strikeout rate at 10.27 per nine innings and the National League's second-best record at 7-1.
"At first, I didn't understand," Volquez said. "When they told me they'd send me down, I figured Triple-A. No. Single-A.
"And then there are rules. No beer, no nothing. Guys would drink it on the road. Not me. I had to comb my hair. Not miss any stretch. Put my hat straight. Keep my pants up."
All were designed by Rangers brass to turn Volquez from a hard-throwing underachiever into the future ace they saw after he spent time at their academy in the Dominican Republic. Though Volquez signed under an assumed name and passed himself off as nearly a year and a half younger – common practice pre-9/11 – he lost no luster, not with a fastball that has hit triple digits and a confounding changeup.
By 22, Volquez was in the big leagues. He imploded. At 23, he was no better. And the Rangers, feeling as though Volquez's lackadaisical attitude was bordering on disrespectful to the organization – and to his natural talent – figured shock therapy would do him best.
"It was a calculated gamble," said Andy Hawkins, the pitching coach at Triple-A Oklahoma whom Volquez considers his greatest mentor. "We knew Volkie. We made that decision based on the relationship with him. On one hand, we were worried he'd go back and rebel. On the other, we thought his character would come through and he'd have the type of experience he did.
"He's immensely talented. No one ever doubted his ability to pitch in the big leagues. We all questioned whether he'd survive."
At first, Volquez struggled in Bakersfield, Calif., going winless in six starts with a 7.13 ERA. He followed the rules, though, and Texas promoted him to Double-A, where he went 8-1, then Triple-A, where he fared even better, 6-1 with a 1.41 ERA. By the end of the season, Volquez returned to the Rangers and survived sans meltdown and with perspective.
"They stood by him, and they made him stand by them," Hawkins said. "He restructured his life and priorities. In hindsight, it was the right decision."
Some of it had been fun. Before his teammates found out about Volquez's demotion, he started an auction to see how much he could get for shaving off his dreadlocks. Once the price reached $600, Volquez took the money and let them know the Rangers were making him cut them off anyway.
Most of his time in the minor leagues, though, served as a reminder of the difference between major-league talent and major-league success. Volquez had the former. The Rangers still were unsure about the latter.
Still, the call in late December shocked Volquez. He was playing dominoes in the Dominican when his cell phone rang, and Rangers general manager Jon Daniels' name popped on the caller ID.
"He told me I'd been traded," Volquez said. "And there was nothing I could do but go to Cincinnati. I still don't know why they traded me."
For the same reason the Reds traded Hamilton: No matter how much someone tries, he can't fully escape his past. So while Hawkins has seen Volquez hit 100 mph with his fastball, the Rangers had trouble forgetting him at his worst. And for all those strikeouts, Volquez still walks a dangerous number of hitters, 30 in 54 1/3 innings.
No matter, not for now, at least, when Volquez is getting outs. With humility conquered for now, Volquez has moved onto his newest skill to learn: becoming a great pitcher. He is using a two-seam grip on his fastball that gives it sinking action, which, at 94 mph, borders on criminal. And in addition to his changeup, which is like a feather shot out of a cannon, he has reintroduced a slider that he kept in mothballs for two seasons.
"He's awesome," Reds catcher Paul Bako said.
"Nah," Volquez said. "I'm more confident, more experienced. (I put in) a lot of work. And learned a lot."
Sometimes, the toughest lessons are the best.