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What is going on with Vince Velasquez?

After a pretty horrible first two starts (and calls for demotion), Velasquez has strung together two good starts. What’s changed?

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

April has been a strange month for Vince Velasquez. In his initial two starts of the season, he stood at a 9.00 ERA and had to endure numerous articles calling for him to be demoted to the bullpen. He was giving up a ton of home runs, but also striking out a lot of people as well.

In the following two games, Velasquez has been much better, going at least six innings in both and only surrendering six total runs. Still not great, but much better than where he was at. It has come at a price though. In the first two games, he struck out 17 batters combined. In the next two, he’s only struck out five. For a guy with a fastball that can regularly reach 95+, it seems a little strange he wouldn’t be getting that many strikeouts. Instead of rearing back and firing, he’s becoming much more of a pitcher, sacrificing strikeouts in favor of more efficient ground outs (20 in the last two games as compared to six in the first two games).

What’s he doing differently? The quick, easy answer is that he’s trying to get hitters out faster:

Perhaps pitching coach Bob McClure has begun drilling the fact he needs to pitch to contact more because of the strain he was causing on the bullpen. Perhaps he is throwing something different. Perhaps he’s simply getting better. Let’s look at all three possibilities.

1.He’s under orders from McClure to be more efficient

The only real way to find this out is be take a look at what’s being said out loud by the manager and player. Take a look at what’s being said both by him, and about him after his starts:

After his Opening Day start, from Pete Mackanin:

“Sometimes, he thinks he has to do too much,” Mackanin said. “He thinks he has to overpower hitters. But there is a time and a place to do that. And there is a time and a place to finesse. And he’s got to do that.”

After his April 12 start against the Mets:

“Sometimes the moment gets the best of me,” Velasquez said. “I have to be sharper. It’s a matter of making adjustments. There’s a turning point somewhere. I’m not giving up, but I know the consequences if I don’t do my part.”

After the Mets, April 19:

“It was just a matter of being in control, not trying to do too much, not trying to be a powerful pitcher,” he said. “I just wanted to be in control of my situation, try get ahead of the guys and put them away.”

After his start against the Marlins, he just talks about execution and having control of his stuff:

“I was in control the whole way,” Velasquez said of his first win in three decisions. “If I’m going to go deep in games I’ve got to get ahead as soon as possible. Whatever it may be — changeup, curveball, slider or whatever, I’ve got to attack.”

Judging from the quotes, and I have no inside information about this, it seems that Velasquez is finally starting to get it. He’s beginning to see that the stuff he has outside of his raw power on his fastball is good enough to get big league hitters out. He can use that curve, slider and changeup combination to induce a swing and contact earlier in the count rather than trying to dominate a hitter early and often. So, certainly one thing we can count on is maturation of a pitcher that has just recently crossed the 200 innings as a start threshold.

2. He’s got something new in his arsenal

This is where it gets tricky. Prior to the season, we pretty much knew what Velasquez was going to be throwing: fastball, curveball, slider and changeup. Occasionally, he might use a two seamer that some thought was a sinker. Brooks baseball, the Pitch F/x website concurred with that thought, yet showing that it wasn’t used very often at all:

At the outset of 2017, though, the usage, again according to Brooks baseball, seems to be shifting away from the power stuff and more towards pitches throw to induce contact:

Last season, Velasquez used his offspeed stuff often. To begin this season, it seems he’s simply tried to blow hitters away with his heat. While it may not look like in conjunction with the previous chart, you can see a big difference in April’s approach. Last April, Velasquez was using his fastball two-thirds of the time. While he’s just a tick under that percentage (66.67% this month), there’s definitely an increased reliance on his changeup and slider with each progressive start, and a decrease in how much he uses his curveball. For the sake of you getting sick of looking at charts, I can tell you that he’s using the slider almost two times as much as last April and his changeup three times as much. His curveball has seen a more than 50% drop in usage as compared to last April. You’ll see what that’s odd a little later, but let’s get to that changeup.

Is it really a changeup? In his April 19 start against the Mets, one of our writers noticed something a little unusual and received a little help from Matt Winkelman:

Later in that thread, it was said that finally, Brooks decided hey! That’s a sinker!

But where it gets really interesting is looking at, and they believe that indeed no, that is not a sinker, but in fact it is a changeup! In fact, you silly, silly reader, Velasquez doesn’t even throw a sinker!

What is happening here? Well, there is no doubt that Velasquez is using his changeup more. Both Pitch F/x sites are in agreement with that. However, has he added a sinker, or just started using one more often? The best source for this I could find was this article from last spring from Matt Gelb where Velasquez acknowledges beginning to throw a sinker. So, since it is coming directly from the player, we can definitively say that he has a sinker and that Brooks baseball is correct. It matches up with something Velasquez himself has said publicly, and with what some of the Pitch F/x systems are seeing. We now have to adjust our understanding of what he has in his back pocket.

3. The stuff he has is better than before

This is where the small sample size argument is really going to kick into high gear, simply because he’s only had four starts.

Take a look at his pitch values, according to Fangraphs:

Just a couple of takeaways here:

  • his four-seamer is in the hitting zone a lot more this than the past two years, and hitters are making more contact with it
  • hitters are making less contact with the curveball, but everything else is up

Remember when I said it was odd his curveball usage is down? By batting average against, his curveball has been his second best pitch this year. Also looking at heatmaps available of Fangraphs, he’s been able to bury the pitch when needed. It’s just been an odd start to Velasquez’s season.

The hard part about making observations this early in the season is that one or two bad starts can really skew numbers in a bad way. Based on what we’ve seen the past two starts, this chart is a result of that. In order to get a true reading of his stuff and how it is playing, it would probably be best to revisit that chart after May when his starts have begun to stabilize and we can get a true read on how effective his pitches have been during the course of the season.

What we can see is that whatever formula Velasquez is using to get more efficient outs in the last two games is working. With a few more tweaks, perhaps he can be that pitcher that can get the groundball when needed while still maintaining and using the ability to strike a man out when needed. Phillies fans should just be happy that he is finally starting to show that he can last more than five innings and become the top of the rotation starter they thought they were getting in the Ken Giles trade.