It happened again.
In the Phillies’ 6-3 loss to the Pirates in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Vince Velasquez once again ran into the same problems that have plagued him in his 31 career starts with the Phils.
Velasquez failed to get through six innings, giving up five runs on seven hits with six strikeouts and two walks on 103 pitches in 5 1⁄3 frames. It was the fifth time in eight starts he’s pitched less than six innings this year, and has pitched six innings or less in a staggering 27 of his 32 starts with the Phillies.
Pitch economy was a major issue for Velasquez coming into 2017, and it remains one.
He is still just 25 years old and in his second full season as a starting pitcher. But Velasquez is most definitely not progressing. In fact, he’s regressing. And based on his comments after the game, he is a pitcher that is lost in the wilderness, begging for help.
“I don’t know, I’m just clueless right now,” Velasquez told reporters. “I’m just running around like a chicken without a head. I don’t know what I’ve got to do but I just know there’s something - I’ve got to break it down little by little.
“Literally, I have to start over, whatever the situation might be. I need to break it down and not put so much pressure on myself. I think that’s one of the hardest things is that I do apply a lot of pressure on myself.”
In the early innings, Velasquez is often dominant. But it never seems to last.
"In the game, it's just a lack of commitment, a lack of concentration, just a lack of everything," Velasquez said. "I mean, jeez, even my golf game is lacking everything. I don't know what I've got to do, but I've got to figure something out. Stuff is just not working out. Nothing is going my way."
After his outing against the Pirates, he is averaging more than a strikeout per inning, 9.27 per nine innings, 9th-best among qualified NL starters. His 23.6% K-rate is 11th.
Clearly, there is talent there, but it’s unrefined and isn’t showing signs of improvement. And there are a handful of other pitchers, such as Jerad Eickhoff, Hector Neris, and Edubray Ramos, who have shown no signs of progressing in 2017.
And at some point, it’s fair to wonder if Bob McClure has any answers for all of this.
As I mentioned on Episode 116 of my podcast, The Felske Files (which you can access at the bottom of the page or find on iTunes), the organization’s philosophy regarding rebuilding has been pretty straightforward - buy the bats and develop the pitching.
And while there are a number of pitchers in the low minors that are extremely exciting and have become legitimate prospects under the leadership of some of the team’s minor league instructors (Rafael Chavez and Carlos Arroyo are two in particular), the progress of the Major League arms has stalled.
Velasquez looks especially lost, and voiced a hopelessness that is concerning. Certainly McClure is trying everything he can to get his young hurler to rectify the problem, but as Velasquez noted, nothing has worked.
So the question must be asked. Is Bob McClure the right man to fix Velasquez? Can Velasquez be fixed by anyone, or is he destined to be a lights-out reliever (which wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world)?
For the record, it’s too soon to throw in the towel on Velasquez as a starter. Some drastic steps need to be taken before a move to the ‘pen should be considered.
McClure has been public about Phillies pitchers over-throwing with two strikes and has expressed his displeasure with the game calling of catcher Cameron Rupp. Certainly those are real obstacles. But because this organization’s philosophy is focused on developing pitchers, there should be a pitching coach at the Major League level that specializes in doing that very thing.
Is that McClure? Obviously that’s up to the Phillies to decide. But the pitching staff’s numbers in 2017 certainly do paint an ominous picture.
Phils’ starters have a 4.84 ERA, 5th-worst in the National League. They are 14th out of 15 teams in K/9, their HR/9 is 3rd-worst, and their FIP is 4th-worst. They’ve also collectively thrown the 3rd-fewest innings in the NL this year, a problem that has really hurt the bullpen as well.
The issues with the bullpen are well chronicled. They’ve blown a number of late leads this year, have the fewest K/9 in the National League, the 3rd-highest BB/9 and have given up more home runs than any other ‘pen in baseball.
These are indications of a pitching staff going backwards.
Owner John Middleton is someone who wants to return to contention as quickly as possible, while still adhering to the rebuilding plan put in place by team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Matt Klentak. So don’t expect the team to go out and buy Jake Arrieta or Yu Darvish this off-season.
But if the Phillies are going to spend any money, it might behoove them to try and pry away one of the game’s premier pitching coaches from some other team’s payroll, someone who specializes in working with young pitchers and has a track record of producing results.
Keep in mind, when the Phils hired McClure before the 2014 season, his resume was not sparkling. He was the pitching coach for the Kansas City Royals from 2006-2011, and during that time, the Royals’ staff was 27th out of 30 teams in terms of fWAR, had the 2nd-worst ERA in baseball over that stretch, and a FIP that was tied for 3rd-worst. He then took over as pitching coach for the Boston Red Sox in 2012 before being fired by the team in mid-season after sparring with then-manager Bobby Valentine.
Bear in mind, this is not a call for McClure to be fired. But given the team’s mandate to develop pitching rather than go out and buy it on the open market, they should have a staff at the Major League level that has a history of getting the most out of their young hurlers.
The Phillies have to decide if Bob McClure is that guy.