Latos-Volquez: A matchup built on a blockbuster
Thursday night's slate of probable pitchers features one marquee matchup pairing two pitchers who have made recent headlines via All-Star and trade deadline stories, namely the Mets' R.A. Dickey and the Phillies' Cole Hamels. The most intriguing matchup on the menu, however, may be that between the Reds' Mat Latos and the Padres' Edinson Volquez, a pair of pitchers traded for each other over the winter. Thus far, the move appears to be doing what it was supposed to do: help Cincinnati contend for a playoff spot, while jump-starting San Diego's rebuilding effort at a time when it has little hope of contending.
On December 17, the Reds sent Volquez and three former first-round picks — catcher Yasmani Grandal, first baseman Yonder Alonso and righty pitcher Brad Boxberger — to the Padres to acquire Latos, whom they viewed as a front-of-the-rotation talent. Paired with Johnny Cueto, the 24-year-old righty could be part of a strong one-two punch that would restore Cincinnati's standing atop the NL Central, which it won in 2010 before sliding under .500 and into third place last year. A 2006 draft-and-follow out of a Florida high school, Latos had shown electrifying stuff —mid-90s heat and swing-and-miss offspeed offerings — since reaching the majors with the Padres in the second half of 2009. In 2010-2011, he had pitched to a 3.21 ERA via low homer and walk rates (0.8 and 2.7 per nine) and a high strikeout rate (8.9 per nine). Even so, his maturity had been called into question often enough that the Padres were willing to part with him given the right package.
While Latos is still striking out and walking hitters with similar frequency to 2010-2011, his home run rate has doubled to 1.6 per nine — the 17 he has allowed are already a career high — and his ERA stands at 4.42. Even so, one can't entirely pin the blame on the move from pitcher-friendly Petco Park to hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark, which as one writer quipped in Baseball Prospectus 2012 is, "as big a change in environment as melting both ice caps, setting the Amazon ablaze and giving every person in China a Hummer." Latos' home ERA is 3.47 despite 12 of those homers coming at Great American, while his road ERA is 5.92. That's an odd split borne of small sample sizes (38 innings on the road, most notably) and a rate of home runs per fly ball that's so inflated as to be fluky (16.7 percent, compared to 11.9 percent on the road). Check the opposing batter lines:
|Year||Home PA||HR||BA||OBP||SLG||BABIP||Road PA||HR||BA||OBP||SLG||BABIP|
Overall, the two sets of numbers are uncannily similar, with this year's line seeing sharp increases in slugging percentage due to the homers allowed at home and a substantially higher batting average on balls in play on the road. Latos hasn't been everything that he was advertised to be — his performance has been worth just 0.4 WARP, compared to an average of 2.7 in the past two seasons — but as a groundballer, he figures to see his home run rate regress at least somewhat in the second half.
As for the Padres' return, Volquez, now 29, has never come close to matching his 2008 breakout campaign (17-6, 3.21 ERA, 9.5 strikeouts per nine); since then, he's undergone Tommy John surgery, earned a 50-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug and served a stint in the minors amid a brutal 2011, with a 5.71 ERA and stratospheric home run and walk rates (1.6 and 5.4 per nine) during his 20 big league starts. This year's ERA and home run rate are considerably better (3.68 and 0.7 per nine), but he's still walking 5.4 per nine, while the gap between his home and road performances has been less extreme than that of Latos, with a 3.45 ERA at home (on .212/.312/.316 hitting), compared to .4.02 on the road (on .235/.365/.396 hitting). Once you account for the low run environment of Petco, he's actually been 0.4 WARP below replacement level, a mark that I don't think does him justice given a rotation that's been decimated by injuries to Cory Luebke, Tim Stauffer, Dustin Mosely and now Andrew Cashner. When injuries stack up like that, teams are more likely to employ players much further below replacement level because they lack adequate depth, hence the resurfacing of has-beens such as Jeff Suppan and Kip Wells.
For San Diego, the trade is less about Volquez than it is the other players, all of whom ranked among Cincinnati's top 10 prospects according to Baseball America. Alonso, a 25-year-old lefty out of the University of Miami, ranked third, but he was blocked by Joey Votto in Cincinnati, and unable to take to leftfield in a brief trial there. He's hitting an unremarkable .260/.339/.359 with three homers (all on the road) in 317 PA after a particularly rough June slump, but once you adjust for the offensive environment, his .267 True Average (runs per plate appearance, expressed on a batting average scale after adjusting for park and league scoring environments) is seven points below the MLB average for first basemen. That's still better than expensive hacks such as Carlos Lee (.258), Todd Helton (.249), and James Loney (.220), heralded youngsters such as Freddie Freeman (.264), Eric Hosmer (.247) and Ike Davis (.232) — not to mention former Padre Adrian Gonzalez (.264). Grandal, a 23-year-old switch-hitting offense-first catcher who ranked fourth on BA's list, made his debut on June 2 with a lone plate appearance, and has made his presence felt since being recalled on June 30. In his first game back, he homered from both sides of the plate, and now has four knocks in 20 plate appearances after tearing up the Pacific Coast League (.335/.443/.521). Boxberger, a 24-year-old righty who ranked 10th on BA's list, has five relief appearances under his belt, but an 8/7 strikeout-to-walk ratio; he offers a 92-95 MPH fastball, but the rest of his repertoire is shaky, as his his control. If he gets it together, he profiles as a setup man who could become a closer. Half a season after the fact, it's foolhardy to declare a winner of any trade involving young players, and the same is true here. While none of the five players involved in the Latos deal have grabbed many headlines with their performances, in the balance, they're pulling in the right directions for two teams with very different needs.