The other day, Alex Carr wrote a piece about how Vince Velasquez might be the breakout guy fans have been looking for this year (apologies to Mr. Fritz). With as much ink as was spilled basically willing Nick Pivetta to be the guy to take the leap, Velasquez sort of went under the radar this winter, most of us hoping he’d give the team 5 decent innings a night. After three starts, it is fair to wonder if Vince has turned a corner. He’s turned in some very nice starts, one of them against a good offense in a hitter’s paradise. Now, of course, I’ll send up the “SSS” flares left and right, but with the way this pitching staff has performed thus far, we’re looking for any and all signs of the cavalry to come in and help the starting staff. What I will not speculate on is Vince’s mental state while on the mound. We’ve all heard him before get very down on himself when adversity hits, but with the amount of pressure that professional athletes find themselves under, I will not discuss where their head is at on any given day. So, what does the data say, if anything, that Vince is doing differently?
As Alex mentioned, Velasquez has come out hummin’ to start the year.
Everything is up this year, some of it minutely, some of it not so much. He’s throwing with much more verve this year, for whatever reason that may be. Since the graph you see is one of yearly averages, this will probably flatten out as the year moves on and more innings begin to pile up on his right arm. In the short term though, it’s encouraging that Vince is throwing hard once again.
What I’m most interested in is that curveball. Adding three more tics on that pitch is pushing it into slider velocity territory, which also impresses me more that people are able to determine the difference in the pitch. We at home can usually tell because a curveball will have more of a shape to it than a slider will, but even still, sometimes you wonder. It also seems that the increased velocity has helped the pitch become a little less hittable. Using Fangraphs and Brooks Baseball, we can see how much improved the pitch has become this year so far when it comes to what hitters are doing with it.
He’s a marked amount of success this year, albeit on a very limited number of actual curveballs thrown. This leads us to what is different about the pitch.
This is where it gets interesting. I’m going to show you two things here. First is the amount of horizontal movement Velasquez’s pitches are getting:
And second, this is the amount of vertical movement his pitches are getting.
If we focus specifically on the curveball, we can conclude that the pitch is much, much tighter, dropping less and moving side to side more. He’s also jumped his spin rate on the pitch this year, adding a bit more RPM’s on the curveball specifically. This leads me to believe that the team identified something with him through some specific video training over the offseason and either tweaked his grip or his release point. Whatever they have done with him, it has improved the pitch to the point where it is becoming a legitimate out getter again, generating a higher whiff percentage now than the past two seasons.
Now before we get all giddy, let’s dial the optimism down a notch. We have to present both sides of the coin, so with all this improvement he’s made with one single pitch, he still needs to improve across the board. If you’re into all of the expected stats that are presented with the publicly available Statcast information we have, it paints a picture of a pitcher who is soon to come into a bit of regression.
He “should” be getting hit pretty hard based on the exit velocity and launch angle he’s giving up on balls that enter play. Whether you rely on those numbers to draw any conclusions is up to you, but I’d also present the information that his strikeout rate is down, his BABIP is WAY down and his groundball percentage is dropping to lower heights as well. It may not happen right away, especially if he continues to rely on a newly effective curveball, but it’s best we brace ourselves for it if it happens.
For now though, it looks like something has changed with what Velasquez is doing with his arsenal. Credit goes to the pitching staff for whatever tweaks they have made, but they also go to Velasquez for making them. Let’s hope the success continues as the year moves on.