When we think about the Phillies starting rotation for 2019, we think about an ace at the top, a grizzled veteran in the No. 2 spot and three young arms with outstanding stuff but a questionable ability to harness it in a way that will make them effective. And of those three young arms, the one fans seem to have the least confidence in is Vince Velasquez.
It’s understandable. After the incredible 16-strikeout, three-hit shutout in his second career start in a Phils uniform, Velasquez has been uneven. In 69 career starts with the Phillies, he has a 19-25 record with a 4.63 ERA. He’s thrown 349.2 innings in those 69 career starts, an average of just 5.06 innings per start, but has struck out 9.8 batters per nine innings and given up just 8.8 hits per nine while walking 3.6.
He had a bad outing against the Rays today down in Clearwater, and obviously that will cause people to read what follows with a lot of skepticism. But if you can put a couple spring games out of your mind (spring games in which pitchers are often times working on certain pitches and not utilizing their arsenal the way they normally would), you can read what follows in the right frame of mind.
There are signs Vince Velasquez took some real steps forward in 2018 and reasons you should feel good about him in 2019.
In his first 12 starts last year, he put up a 3.82 ERA and gave up a slash line of .245/.309/.420. He pitched at least six innings in half of those starts while only going over 100 pitches in those 12 outings one time (101 in a six-inning effort against the Giants).
In start No. 13, Velasquez was blitzed by the Milwaukee Brewers and had to wear a 10-run, 3.2-inning outing for a pitching staff that had gotten hammered by the Brewers the two days prior. That outing ballooned his ERA from 3.82 to 4.95.
In the 12 starts and one relief appearance that followed, he had a 3.06 ERA and allowed opponents to hit just .188/.296/.310 against him, with 59 strikeouts and 29 walks in 61.2 innings of work. He pitched at least six innings in half of those starts and went seven innings in a two-hitter against the Padres.
If you remove that aberrant 10-run outing from his first 24 starts of the season, he had a 3.45 ERA in those other 23 starts. I think everyone would be quite happy with that, no?
There’s no doubt Velasquez got tired in September, and it was almost certainly from fatigue. He only pitched 72 innings in 2017 and his previous career high in innings at the big league level came in 2016, when he threw 131 innings for the Phillies. He had never made more than 24 starts in a season until last year, when he made 30. The fact he stayed healthy all season was a major victory, so it shouldn’t have been a big surprise that he had a 10.70 ERA in five September starts, piling up just 17.2 innings as he blew past his previous single-season innings totals.
Many of us predicted the young arms would run out of gas as we called for the team to trade for Cole Hamels. However, Velasquez now knows what it’s like to be a starter for an entire six-month season and one would presume that should help stave off any late-season stumbles this season.
Velasquez also changed up his pitch usage in 2018, too. He still threw his fastball a ton, 64.2% of the time, just shy of his career average of 65.6%, and he threw his curveball 14.9% of the time, just a couple ticks higher than the year before. However, he favored his slider more last year than his changeup, going from a 7% slider-to-10.2% changeup mix in 2017 and flipped the script, throwing his slider 15.7% and his change 5.2%.
The Phillies likely noticed that, in 2016, opponents hit .322 against his changeup and .457 against that pitch in ‘17, while they hit .279 against his slider in ‘16 and .185 against it in 2017. Last season, using his slider more and his changeup less, opponents hit .308 against the change and .200 against the slider (stats courtesy of Brooks Baseball).
Velasquez should also be aided by playing for a manager that wants to use his bullpen more and, as I wrote about last week, a deeper bullpen should ease the demand for Phils starters to pitch into the 7th inning every time out. While having pitchers pitch deeper into games is obviously a more favorable outcome, it won’t cripple this bullpen if Velasquez becomes a guy who is only asked to face a lineup twice a night.
On Episode 266 of Hittin’ Season, Justin Klugh and I talked about Velasquez and the rest of the starting rotation, and wondered just how much rope this unit will get as the team is now expected to be a playoff contender.
The pressure is on this unit to produce and, even with an improved season by Velasquez in 2018, this could be his last season to prove he can be relied on as a reliable starter in a post-season rotation.