When Francisco Liriano's career had bottomed out, the Pittsburgh Pirates provided a safe haven for him to work his way back to prominence. So when the team embarked upon the task of filling out its starting rotation in December, Liriano was happy to return the favor and play the role of recruiter-in-chief.
Early in the offseason, when Edinson Volquez was looking for a home in free agency and the Pirates were offering a one-year deal, he checked in with Liriano for a scouting report. The pitchers are good friends and live about 20 minutes from each other in San Cristobal, Dominican Republic, and Volquez knew he could get a candid assessment of what to expect.
"He called and asked me how I like it," Liriano said, "and I told him, 'The coaches are great. They'll help you go out and let you pitch and be yourself.' If he's willing to learn and get better, he's in the right spot."
Now that Volquez is in the fold on a one-year, $5 million deal, he'll try to move beyond several disappointing seasons in Cincinnati, San Diego and Los Angeles and a terrible spring training and try to re-establish himself. The question is: Can history repeat itself?
The Pirates have the reigning National League MVP in center fielder Andrew McCutchen and the 2013 Manager of the Year in Clint Hurdle, but their biggest edge lies in their ability to take pitchers with injury issues, waning self-confidence and inconsistent mechanics and transform them into valued contributors. Where others see risk or lost causes, general manager Neal Huntington and his support team see opportunity and "undervalued assets."
Do the Pirates have the system in place to turn around Volquez, who was scheduled to make his 2014 debut Sunday against St. Louis at PNC Park? If recent history is any indication, absolutely. The people upstairs aren't the only ones who have an emotional stake in his success.
"I don't look at him as a work in progress," said Pirates starter Charlie Morton. "I look at him as a guy who's here on the team. He's our guy and he's going to do his job, and I would hope he has the same expectations of himself. If you don't believe in your teammates, then get out of the clubhouse."
Several years ago, the Pittsburgh brain trust began to convene at the start of each offseason, target pitchers who might be resurrection candidates, narrow the field and begin making background calls. The Pirates are no different than any other organization in that regard, except that the organization's financial limitations make it imperative that they find hidden gems at a reasonable price.
Pirates scouts are free to weigh in with observations, and the analysts chime in with stats during the process. A lot of the numbers are garden-variety stuff (platoon splits, ground-ball-fly-ball ratio, ballpark effects et al), and some of the information is more complex and proprietary in nature. "We look at anything you can imagine and weigh it accordingly," Huntington said.
The training staff, medical staff and "mental skills" people, as Huntington calls them, all play a role. But Pittsburgh's approach succeeds primarily because of a skilled array of coaches with a knack for getting the best out of pitchers. The group includes big league pitching coach Ray Searage and bullpen coach Euclides Rojas, special assistant to the GM Jim Benedict, pitching coordinator Scott Mitchell, Gulf Coast League pitching coach Miguel Bonilla, Triple-A pitching coach Tom Filer and all the other instructors throughout the minor league system.
"There is no single answer," Huntington said. "It's not really copyable. Sometimes when you have that secret recipe, you put your arms around it and you don't want to share it. There is no secret recipe here. There are just a lot of really talented people doing some really good things."
The list of success stories is impressive:
• After bottoming out at 6-12 with a 5.34 ERA for the Twins and White Sox in 2012, Liriano went 16-8, 3.02 to emerge as Pittsburgh's staff ace and earn the Opening Day assignment this season.
• Charlie Morton logged a hideous 7.57 ERA in 17 starts after coming to Pittsburgh from Atlanta with Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez in a 2009 trade for Nate McLouth. But the Pirates stuck with him and saw enough progress to sign him to a three-year, $21 million contract extension in December.
• Locke, a finesse lefty whose prospect status had faded in recent years, made the All-Star team before coming back to earth in the second half last year.
• A.J. Burnett averaged a career-high 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings last year with the Pirates at age 36. He left Pittsburgh to sign a $16 million deal with the Phillies in February.
In most cases, the Pirates work their magic with mechanical tweaks rather than major overhauls. They incorporated a Luis Tiant-type hip turn with Locke, smoothed out a hitch or two in Liriano's windup, and let Morton throw from his natural three-quarter angle, rather than over the top, to facilitate a more repeatable delivery.
Unlike some of Pittsburgh's reclamation projects, Volquez pitched at a high level before his career took an abrupt turn south. He went 17-6 with a 3.21 ERA and made the All-Star team as a rookie with Cincinnati in 2008 before blowing out his right elbow. While rehabbing, he incurred a 50-game suspension for a failed drug test that he claimed stemmed from the use of a banned medication prescribed to him by a physician in the Dominican Republic.
While a lot of pitchers thrive because of the pitcher-friendly environs at Petco Park and the tutelage of manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley, Volquez lost his way in San Diego. He led the majors with 105 walks in 2012, and allowed an NL-high 108 earned runs while pitching for the Padres and Dodgers last season.
But the Pirates saw several attributes that convinced them Volquez was worth a $5 million flier. His fastball velocity was still holding firm at 93.6 mph as recently as 2012. He induced ground balls 47.6 percent of the time last season, in line with his previous career norms. And his 2013 problems notwithstanding, he still recorded a higher rate of swings and misses (8.6 percent) than Jon Lester, C.J. Wilson and David Price.
How meticulous are the Pirates in their research? With help from Volquez's agent, Lenny Strelitz, Benedict tracked down video of Volquez as a 16-year-old in the Dominican -- and more video from each subsequent season. When the Pirates signed Volquez, they sat him down and gave him a video crash course in self-awareness.
Placed side-by-side with the pristine old video, the new clips were an eye-opener. The Pirates found that Volquez had begun rushing his delivery and was throwing his fastball more with his front side than the back. The more he rushed, the more his right arm dragged. "That's from trying too hard," Searage said. And the more people he listened to, the more he lost sight of what made him good in the first place.
"You want a pitcher to have his body under control, and a quick arm," Searage said. "With him it was the other way around. He got too many spices and the soup didn't taste very good. It was more of a mish-mosh."
In recent years, Pittsburgh's star pitching pupils have benefited from some extra time in extended spring training to work out the kinks. Last year, Liriano stayed behind in Florida with Bonilla for six weeks while rehabbing from a broken arm that he had suffered while playing with his kids during the offseason. In 2012, Burnett spent three extra weeks in extended spring after suffering an eye injury on a botched bunt attempt in the Grapefruit League.
Volquez, in contrast, will jump into the fray immediately. The Pirates saw enough snippets in spring training to think a light bulb will click on at some point. But he might be in for some rough outings along the way.
"We've seen 94 [mph] on the black at the knees away with movement," Huntington said. "We've seen very sharp breaking balls, and swing-and-miss changeups. The challenge is having him do it more consistently -- not only from outing to outing, but sometimes from inning to inning."
It takes a village
Searage, a former big league pitcher with Milwaukee and three other teams in the 1980s, exudes a next-door neighbor vibe. He's a stocky guy with a gray mustache and an avuncular demeanor that immediately puts pitchers at ease.
He does his best work in the fresh air and sunshine, preaching the organizational mantra in the comfort of the pitcher's office. Rather than exhort pitchers to stay over the rubber, Searage tells them to "get to the box." When they reach the transitional point at the back of their delivery, he'll exhort them to "get to the top."
Get to the box. Get to the top. Pitchers keep hearing the same phrases day after day, and eventually something clicks.
The Pirates' overriding mandate can be summarized in a handful of bullet points. "Our philosophy is first-pitch strikes, pitching [inside], and making the hitter do something with three pitches or less," Searage said. "We also protect our teammates and control the running game."
Benedict, who has a background in scouting and player development as well as coaching, spends a lot of time working with pitchers on the "mind-body" part of the equation. He gets a strong endorsement from Morton, who lacked confidence and had a rap from scouts as unassertive (or worse yet, "soft") before Benedict tapped into his cerebral side.
"He's really good at making you feel like it's OK to be yourself, as opposed to somebody who's going to try to shape you to be something you're not," Morton said. "The personalities in baseball don't intimidate him. He can dissect individuals really well."
The Pirates know they're not going to succeed with every pitcher who passes through PNC Park. Erik Bedard dropped in for one forgettable season and was on his way. Jonathan Sanchez and Scott Olsen had brief, undistinguished tenures in Pittsburgh, and Craig Hansen, beset by shoulder issues, threw 22 innings as a Pirate before his release in 2011. Sometimes injuries drive the narrative. And sometimes, as Huntington concedes, "We didn't find the right button to push."
For Pittsburgh's staff, there's no such thing as a failed experiment. Even the pitchers who fail to pan out provide insights that the coaches can pass along to Huntington and the front office.
"It's not all about Comeback Players of the Year and Cy Youngs," Benedict said. "There's value in finding out, 'This is not going to work. We need to move on from a guy.'"
The Pirates never hesitate to take the plunge on a new project. Collin Balester, a former Nationals prospect with a Tommy John surgery in his past, will spend this summer working with Benedict in the minors. So will Vance Worley, who is trying to rebound from a disastrous tenure in Minnesota. It's also worth keeping an eye on Daniel Schlereth, a former first-round pick by Arizona who will open the season with Triple-A Indianapolis. The Pirates have dropped his arm angle slightly, and Benedict said he is working to become less of a "high-slot, arm strength guy" and more of "sinker, spin the ball" type.
Volquez, the project du jour with the big club, will try to solidify the back end of the rotation and help the Pirates to a second straight postseason appearance. If he takes a while to figure things out, it won't be for lack of effort.
"He's very open to it," Searage said. "He's embracing it, but he wants it done yesterday, and it's not gonna happen yesterday. Right now he's thinking about results rather than the process. He's just got to stay with the process."
As Francisco Liriano can attest, the process is kind to pitchers who have faith. If Volquez is willing to learn and get better, he's come to the right place.