Eureka! After reinventing himself, Edinson Volquez is starring in Cincy
CINCINNATI -- Edinson Volquez wanted to quit. When the Texas Rangers staff pulled him aside that March 2007 day in spring training and told him that he -- the former No. 1 ranked prospect in the organization, possessor of a gilded changeup, a 98-mph fastball, and all of 14 major league starts -- would find himself not just in the minors, but three levels and 1,400 miles away from Arlington in Single A Bakersfield.
Worse, the Rangers informed him that should he wish to advance to Double A, much less the majors, he would have to abide by a set a of rules that mandated everything from the time he woke up, to the size of the razor blade he'd use to cut his hair, to the people he could talk to on days he was scheduled to pitch. Volquez knew that his combined 1-10 record and 9.20 ERA in 2005 and 2006 were far short of what was expected of him...but Single A?
For a moment it seemed that leaving the team would be better than losing his pride, but then a funny thing happened on the way to the farm: Volquez realized his major league dream was bigger than his ego.
Edinson Volquez's story, however, isn't so much the depth of his fall as it is the speed of his recovery. Just one year after that demotion, his sizable struggles at Bakersfield (zero wins and a 7.13 ERA) and a trade to the Cincinnati Reds, Volquez is now perched atop a mound in the majors and the National League in ERA (1.33). After holding the NL East-leading Florida Marlins to one earned run last Tuesday, he joined former Oakland A's pitcher Mike Norris as the only other pitcher to allow fewer than two earned runs in their first eight starts of a season. In his next start last Sunday, he outdueled American League ERA leader Cliff Lee by giving up two earned runs over six innings in the Reds 6-4 victory, and now ranks second in the NL in wins (seven) and strikeouts (62).
"To his credit, he did everything," says Rangers pitching coach Mark Connor, part of the brain trust who orchestrated the demotion. "We weren't sure (how he was going to react). We'd gotten to a point with Volkie where everything needed to be put into some structure for him. He got to the big leagues probably before he should have out of necessity here with the pitching the way it was in '05, '06. He obviously had the physical ability but it wasn't being put into use."
While Connor couldn't have overestimated Volquez's anger over the move, he did have some experience in exiling promising pitchers. While serving as pitching coach for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2001, Connor watched struggling ace Roy Halladay be shipped to Single A Dunedin to overhaul his delivery. The next season, Halladay won 19 games and the year after that, the AL Cy Young award.
While Halladay's big league banishment focused mainly on mechanics, Volquez's centered on maturity. "He came up when he was really young," says Francisco Cordero, a teammate and mentor in both Texas and Cincinnati. "He'd didn't have this maturity that he has now." That maturity kicked in by Volquez's third start in Bakersfield.
"I understood (the demotion) was good for me," says Volquez.
So good that when Scott Servais, the Rangers director of player development, called to tell him he'd been promoted to Double A Frisco, Volquez told him, "I don't want to go. I want another game." He didn't win that game -- or any other during his stint in Single A -- but he did abide by every rule the Rangers had set for him in spring training. Getting the message got Volquez the promotion to Double A, where he rediscovered his winning ways. Volquez collected 16 wins the rest of the year, including 14 in the minors at Frisco and Triple A Oklahoma, and two more as a September callup in the big leagues.
"When we got him back last year, he was like a different person," says Connor. "There were some innings where in the previous years that he was here, he wouldn't have gotten out of. He understood that he had to make a pitch here, a pitch there and he made those pitches where as previously he'd just try to blow his way through an inning and inevitably it would be a big inning and he'd be out of the game."
Texas wasn't the only team to notice the change. Wayne Krivsky, then-general manager of the Reds, insisted that the 24-year-old right hander be included in any deal for current major league home run and RBI leader Josh Hamilton. "We gave Wayne at least two dozen variations without Volkie in the deal, but he was stubborn about it," says Rangers GM Jon Daniels.
After a phone call from Daniels telling him he'd been traded to Cincinnati interrupted his dominoes game last December, Volquez reported to the Reds training facility in his native Dominican Republic where he made his biggest mechanical adjustment: He dropped his elbow about three inches from the high-3/4 arm slot the Rangers wanted him to throw from to his instinctive low-3/4 delivery he used as a prospect and now, again, as a force with the Reds. "When you're naturally a 3/4 and you try to go higher, you're not going to be the same. It's not natural for you," Volquez says. "The way I'm pitching now, this is what I've been looking for the last three seasons."
Even when Edinson Volquez was ready to quit, he knew that he was close to becoming the ace he believed he could be. He just never knew that the distance between his failure and his success wouldn't be measured so much in the number of minor league ranks he scaled, the miles he traveled, but in the inches -- a whole three of them -- he dropped his elbow to raise his game.