Look around the National League playoff picture, and what stands out is the quality of the pitching. They say pitching wins in October, and while that old adage may or may not be reliably true, most of these teams are built in the familiar postseason mold. The Giants and Padres, we just talked about. The Phillies will come at their opponent with a three-headed monster equaled by few through baseball's history. The Braves get innings from their starters and follow up with one of the most dominant bullpens in the league.
In short, there's excellent pitching in a lot of places. And the team that doesn't quite fit in is the team that surprised the world (read: me) by winning the NL Central.
It's not that the Reds' pitching staff is bad. It's just unexceptional, when you consider the time of year. Their innings leader, Bronson Arroyo, seldom strikes anyone out. Johnny Cueto doesn't pitch up to the quality of his stuff. There's uncertainly at #3. And their bullpen is backed by a closer with a whole bunch of walks and an ERA over 4.
The Reds were an underdog throughout the regular season, and when you get involved in discussions about the playoffs, that's where they remain. Whether right or wrong, people look at the other pitching staffs headed for October and conclude that the Reds just don't quite match up.
The Reds have got a sleeper, though. They've got a few, actually, considering the playoff rotation isn't yet set and rookie Travis Wood has been quite good. But one guy who might come up huge is Edinson Volquez, who's shaken off a rough return to have a phenomenal September.
Volquez, you'll remember, was dominant in 2008 in much the same way that Jonathan Sanchez is dominant today. He piled up his walks, but he also piled up his strikeouts, and he wound up with a small ERA through 32 starts. He had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2009, however, and when he came back this past July, he didn't seem himself. In Volquez's first eight games back, he averaged just 4.1 innings per start, with 36 strikeouts and 27 walks.
In late August, he reported to the minors. In the middle of September, he came back to Cincinnati. Needless to say, he's had quite the turnaround.
In Volquez's four starts since returning to the bigs, he's thrown 27.2 innings, fanning 31 while walking just eight. Granted, two of those starts came against Pittsburgh and Houston and another came against strikeout-happy Arizona, but there's been clear progress. A comparison:
Volquez before demotion: 56% strikes, 36.4% Zone
Volquez following recall: 65% strikes, 45.6% Zone
Zone% is a statistic available at Fangraphs, and it tells you the percentage of pitches that end up in the strike zone (as opposed to the percentage of pitches that go for strikes). Before, barely a third of Volquez's pitches were true. More recently, he's shot north.
And that's a good sign. In 2008, Volquez's Zone% was just below the league average. In September 2010, Volquez's Zone% has been just below the league average. And the swinging strikes are certainly there. What he's showing is that he's getting back to what he was when he was a true top-of-the-rotation starter, and he's getting back to form at the best possible time.
We don't know yet whether Edinson Volquez will be a part of the Reds' playoff rotation. The coaching staff still has much to discuss. If he makes it, he could well prove to be the team's ace. And if he's left out, I suppose there are worse things than relying on an arm like this to pick up critical innings in relief. Volquez's usage has yet to be determined, but his ability looks to be just about back.