Chris Volstad’s most recent start provided a reminder of two things: that Volstad can pitch effectively against MLB offenses, and that it’s been a long time since he did so with much regularity. The 6’8” right-hander faced a Dodgers lineup including Shane Victorino, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier and Hanley Ramirez over the weekend and limited Los Angeles to two runs on six hits in seven innings. Yet Saturday's start was Volstad's first seven-inning outing of the season, and the first game in which he allowed fewer than three earned runs.
It’s been a disappointing season for Volstad to this point, and he will be a non-tender candidate this coming offseason. When the Cubs acquired Volstad from Miami for Carlos Zambrano, he seemed capable of providing value at the back of Chicago's rotation by making his starts, limiting walks and inducing ground balls. He had averaged 29 starts per season in the three years preceding the trade while posting a 4.88 ERA, accumulating twice as many strikeouts as walks, and generating more than his share of ground balls.
However, the results have been disappointing so far in 2012. Volstad opened the season in Dale Sveum's rotation, then got demoted after posting a 7.46 ERA through eight starts. He joined the rotation at Triple-A Iowa, posting an unremarkable 5.17 ERA with 6.6 K/9 and 2.4 BB/9 in 12 starts in the Pacific Coast League. The Cubs recalled him from Iowa last week, so he has the chance to prove he belongs at the MLB level — now and in 2013.
Volstad earns $2.66MM this year and he’ll get a raise through the arbitration process if the Cubs tender him a contract next winter. He has pitched enough innings at the MLB level this year that he projects to obtain a $3.1MM salary in 2013, according to MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz. Yes, he’s on track for a $450K raise despite a career-high 7.22 ERA, a diminished strikeout rate and an unsightly 0-8 record. The Cubs must decide between now and the middle of December whether another season of Volstad is worth $3MM-plus.
Though his stat line isn’t pretty, bad luck may be a contributing factor to Volstad’s season — to an extent. Opponents are hitting .319 on balls in play against Volstad, a career high. It's an indication that he isn't getting much help from luck or Chicago’s defenders. No MLB pitcher has a lower strand rate than Volstad, who allows nearly half of baserunners to score (min. 50 IP). Though he's probably due for some regression, it's not uncommon for pitchers who have trouble generating swings and misses to allow a relatively high percentage of baserunners to score. And if any MLB pitcher has trouble inducing swings and misses, it’s Volstad. He generates the lowest percentage of swinging strikes among the 192 MLB pitchers with at least 50 innings in 2012 (4.6%, tied with Bartolo Colon and Henderson Alvarez). In other words, it’d be overly optimistic to say Volstad's numbers are simply a product of bad luck.
Volstad’s in the rotation for now, which means he has the chance to string together some more strong starts before the season ends. But if he fails to impress, the Cubs may choose to non-tender Volstad this winter and look elsewhere to strengthen the back of their rotation.