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2017 Phillies Player Preview: Harnessing the power of Vince Velasquez

Velasquez is trying to give the Phillies reasons why he stands out in the crowd.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Sixteen strikeouts. Nine innings of work. 113 pitches. 83 of them strikes. Three hits. No runs. A breaking pitch he waited to unleash until finishing off his tenth K. 23 years old. Pretty much just a fastball.

Not a bad start for a guy hated by the umpires.

It was an invigorating start last season that stirred images of Vince Velasquez putting the Phillies on his back and burning his way through a playoff series. But that afternoon wound up being the height of Velasquez's season, and the goal is, of course, for April 14, 2016 not to be the height of the young hurler's career.

In his next start, Velasquez would need 74 pitches to not even get out of the fifth inning, give up five runs but only earn two, and then not go further than six innings in his next few starts. In fact, he wouldn’t last that long again until July 19. But he did allow only five earned runs in his first five starts, and didn’t allow any runs in three of them through a combined 21 shutout innings. But then he gave up a bunch of runs in a couple of starts after that. May 29 against the Cubs was bad.

The right-hander felt some bicep soreness he didn’t like on June 8 after throwing two pitches to the Cubs and left the game. At that point his ERA was still under 4.00, but not for much longer. A series of small implosions led to a big one in early August against the Dodgers, adjacent to Velasquez’s hometown of Pomona, CA:

More than 100 friends and family came to watch Vince Velasquez, a native of nearby Pomona, Calif., and those closest to the 24-year-old pitcher secured field passes.

...Velasquez came to greet his support, which held signs during batting practice to encourage him. One spelled Pomona, but with a Phillies script "P." A woman wearing a Velasquez jersey assembled a strikeout tracker.

Then, for two hours, they watched Velasquez pitch the worst game of his major-league career.

We don’t have to get into it.

Velasquez had been trying to get by on his heater, though he has other pitches, and his control was shaken somewhere around mid-season enough to see a spike in his walk rate. It was around this time, as well, that the Rangers came calling.

Of course, Texas was exactly where Velasquez had just come from the season prior. The Phillies got him and four other guys - including Brett Oberholtzer, who just got hammered in Spring Training while wearing Roy Halladay’s No. 32 for the Blue Jays - in the Ken Giles trade with the Astros. The Rangers had surfaced as seekers of starting pitching at the 2016 trade deadline, and at one point they were in "pretty deep" talks with the Phillies to bring the 23-year-old back down south. Things fell apart because the Phillies felt VV was worth two young, and at least one major league-ready, bats. Texas disagreed.

Velasquez’s firepower is undeniable. But by the merciful end of 2016, which for Velasquez was on September 3 due to the Phillies shutting him down, he was throwing way too many pitches per inning - up to 17, as he would get ahead of hitters, but fail to put them away. This meant he couldn’t last as many innings, it eroded his velocity, it took the bite off his pitches, and opposing hitters were now tattooing his increasing mistakes over the fence - he gave up eight home runs in 16.1 innings over a three-game stretch in August.

Which is still better than watching Oberholtzer’s line.

This spring, Velasquez is working on his curveball. He’s talked about how pitch counts were "haunting" him last season, and is attempting to experiment with more off-speed pitches to keep next to his 95-96 m.p.h. heat while improving his focus to hit locations. Getting more use from his breaking pitch, however, would go a long ways in not letting hitters get as comfortable at the plate with him.

Fortunately, like all the young players in Phillies camp this season, he has a wily veteran with formidable experience to pester for advice. And Clay Buchholz, to his credit, has explained that because the Phillies are "without large expectations," he’s relaxed enough to not slap a sophomore for asking too many questions. Buchholz has become a mentor to Velasquez, which, I’m never quite sure the reality behind these claims when I see them. Has he given him tips a couple of times? Did they go out to dinner to discuss pitching? Did he just tell him where the bathroom was on the first day? If anything, neither of them would know where it was, since neither has been to Clearwater for spring training before.

Well, it turns out, Buchholz and VV commune daily, and the elder has been preaching that his pupil adopt a healthy mental mindset, advocating the positives of a "short memory." Which truly is a boon for a young pitcher to understand, but to me it’s always been more of a "don’t think of a white horse" conundrum. The only way to learn a skill like stifling frustration and staying in control is by experiencing frustration on the mound, something Velasquez certainly has done, and maturing your reaction to it. That comes with time.

The closest thing Velasquez ever came to 16 strikeouts after April 14 is 10, in two different starts over the season. He doesn’t need to strike everybody out to be an effective starter. In fact, mixing in a few ground-outs would probably be healthier for everyone. But just like with a lot of the wave of youth in Phillies camp right now, Velasquez seems to understand the issues that plagued him after last season’s display, and plans to address them. Experience will be the key to his progress, which is good, because he announced that he is ready to cast off an innings limit and do this thing.

I say do it, Vinny! Fire that fastball and then snare them with the curve. And when Pete Mackanin runs out and begs you to stop doing what you’re doing, give him the curveball too and watch his mind shatter. I don’t know why I need him to be a super villain in this scenario, but in Scott Franzke’s words, I just think it’s time to "pull off the bunt and crank one."

Or, he could skip all this development and just put on Roy Halladay’s hat, absorbing Doc’s powers. It worked for Nick Pivetta, sort of.