Evaluating coaching is one of the most difficult things to do for any sports observer, especially when we're looking at the development and improvement side. We're not in the locker room, we're not on the practice field, we're not in the workout room. Players improve all the time and it's not always clear who deserves the credit – and how much of that credit might go to someone (or something) outside of the player himself.
All preamble aside, it sure looks like Pittsburgh has a good thing with pitching coach Ray Searage. And by proxy, this might be enough to make a case for reclamation project Edinson Volquez.
Searage became Pittsburgh's full-time pitching coach in 2011 and he's had plenty of feel-good stories on his watch. A.J. Burnett repaired his career with the Pirates in 2012 and Francisco Liriano did the same thing last year. No one thought much of Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon when they joined the Bucs; now, they're both considered lockdown relievers.
Is Volquez the feel-good story for 2014? Let's have a look around.
Volquez's career was just about in the toilet when the Pirates took a chance on the 30-year-old last winter. He toiled for the Padres and Dodgers last year (in a pair of pitcher parks) and turned in a 5.71 ERA and 1.59 WHIP, ratio-torching numbers. It marked the fifth straight year Volquez's ERA was over four. Memories from his dazzling 206-strikeout debut in 2008 keep getting hazier and hazier.
All through his career, Volquez has been the classic thrower: big velocity, no idea where it's going. He's piled up strikeouts and walks, uncorked plenty of wild pitches. A carnival ride. With that in mind, consider the foreign version of Volquez we've seen though five starts this season: 28 IP, 21 H, 7 R, 6 ER, 5 BB, 16 K. That's a 1.93 ERA and 0.93 WHIP, by the way.
Forget the outlier ratios for now, we'll get to them in a minute. Look how against-type Volquez has been with the strikeouts and walks. His career K/9 is 8.3 – but it's just 5.1 this year. Volquez generally hands out 4.7 walks per segment, but this year it's 1.6. How can this be the same pitcher?
Volquez hasn't seen a run of cushy opponents: his last four starts came against the Reds, Cardinals and Brewers (twice). He has been in Pittsburgh for four of five appearances, which is favorable, though PNC Park isn't the pitcher-coddling environment of Petco or Chavez Ravine. There is the matter of a friendly BABIP (.233) and scant HR/FB rate (4.0 percent), not that those numbers should surprise anyone. Outlier ERAs have to come with outlier luck stats. There's no eureka moment in these cases.
Searage has somehow turned Volquez into a strike-thrower, smoothing out the mechanics and making everything more consistent. Volquez hits the zone 52.6 percent of the time this year, a notable jump up from his career rate. The favorable ground-ball profile is still in place (49.4 percent this year, 48.1 percent for career). No one can say anything definitive about a five-game sample, but remember how the Burnett and Liriano comebacks were perceived in recent years. You have to start somewhere. Both the walk and strikeout clips look suspiciously low, but if Volquez can keep the ratio between them over three, he's probably going to be worth owning.
I think back to all the times Dave Duncan fixed a pitcher in St. Louis, or the apparent work Curt Young has done with Jesse Chavez in Oakland this year. Some teams seem to have the knack, pulling a rabbit out of the hat. I can't promise anyone this will be a full-year story, but when plausible upside appears, we consider action.
The schedule isn't softening up: Volquez will probably get the Cardinals, Blue Jays and Cardinals over his next three turns. But in medium and deeper mixed pools, he needs to be on a roster. You can still add Volquez in 82 percent of Yahoo leagues. Your move, fake baseballer.
• Scooter Gennett keeps trying to get your attention, but it hasn't been an easy sell. We talked about him Tuesday and there was some predictable jeering. Maybe it's tied to his lack of category juice this year. Maybe you're not ready to accept someone named "Scooter."
Gennett kept the good vibe going Tuesday, picking up two hits (including a homer and a steal). He's slashing .322/.355/.458 for the year, and he was a handy player in 69 games last year (.324, six homers).
A change in batting-order slot can be a major thing, especially when we're looking at NL players. Gennett was stuck hitting eighth for most of the early season, a death spot in the senior circuit. Despite a .385 average there, he had just one run scored over nine games. You don't want to be locked down with the pitcher hitting behind you – teams are unlikely to run in that situation. And it's going to cost you an extra at-bat more often than not.
(While we're on this subject, someone talk some sense into Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez. Andrelton Simmons should never bat eighth again, not on that team. Using B.J. Upton in the No. 2 slot is a colossal joke.)
We can't be sure Gennett will stick in the No. 2 spot, or Jean Segura will remain in the bottom third of the order. But as long as Gennett keeps this assignment, he has a spot on my team. There's still plenty of time to be early to the story; the Milwaukee keystone is ready to go in 96 percent of Yahoo leagues.
• Jose Quintana is searching for work in 60 percent of the Y, a little surprising to me. He's coming off a handy season (3.51/1.22, 164 strikeouts) and he's been sharp in three of his four turns this season. The Rangers got him for nine hits and five runs last week, but Arlington does that to a lot of pitchers. I'm not holding it against The Q.
Even if you're looking at this more in the streaming corridor, I'll make a case for Quintana. He's up against the Tigers on Thursday, a team he's done well against over four career starts (2.70/1.20, 27 K, 7 BB). His one start at Comerica was an eight-inning, seven-strikeout victory, and the weather Thursday should be on the frigid side (advantage, pitchers). I know, I know, small samples everywhere – but I get the idea the rotisserie public overreacted to Quintana's poor Texas appearance. Even if the White Sox don't do much against Max Scherzer, I still see Quintana making a positive contribution to your bottom line.
• A Twitter follower named Jeremy asked a good question about Victor Martinez's catching future, so I might as well tackle it here. Martinez picked up two catching appearances earlier in the year, but it could take a while for him to get over the five threshold. Heck, it might not happen at all.
The Tigers only have five NL-park games left on their schedule, and they're all in the second half (Arizona for three in late July, Pittsburgh for two in mid-August). It's doubtful Martinez would catch the entire Arizona series, so it's unlikely he'll have catching eligibility until mid-August (and no guarantee it happens, period). When Detroit is on the AL schedule, there's no incentive to use Martinez at catcher, barring some emergency. The DH role is his best fit.
Speed Round: I'm always looking for performances that might have a signature significance tilt to them, but Collin McHugh's 12-strikeout game will probably land in the fluke file. He only had eight strikeouts over his 14 innings in the minors, and his first nine starts in the majors (over three years) were a disaster . . . Remember when you could actually trade CC Sabathia for Alex Wood? Good times. Wood has to carry the Inverted W flag while Chris Sale is on the disabled list, and he did so nicely in Tuesday's tough-luck start (8 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 0 BB, 11 K). Jose Fernandez struck out 14 on the other side (grabbing his third win), backed up by automatic Steve Cishek . . . Colorado rested Charlie Blackmon on Tuesday, one day removed from a two-homer game. Maybe the Rockies don't know where to find lefty-righty splits; Blackmon has been fine against southpaws. Or maybe Walter Weiss had to get Drew Stubbs (.222/.256/.250) onto the field. Colorado only scored two runs but it won the game anyway, which probably reinforces this silly behavior.