Vince Velasquez is the blizzard that never hits. Forecasters warn of bats strewn in the baselines, downed power-hitters, drifts of strikeouts up to your forehead. You put your life on hold to watch the first innings. The first batters fall to strikeouts and shattered handles. But the initial flurries don’t stick. The winds of change are all just bluster. And you are left cold with disappointed children.
I am certainly not here to tell you that this is Velasquez’s year. But I’m also not going to join the chorus of his detractors. I understand why a significant portion of the fanbase is fed-up with him. He arrived in town as a touted prospect and the key piece in the Ken Giles trade. He then threw a solid first full season, which included a dominant game that made us salivate for the top of the rotation fireballer he might become. Instead, VV has vacillated between useful seasons and bad seasons. In his three good years he’s been a decent starter for the back of a rotation. In his two bad years, he shouldn’t have been in a rotation for a competitive team. The peaks and valleys just are who Velasquez is.
The narrative around Velasquez, however, omits the peaks. Again, that’s understandable. In his good seasons, Velasquez has underperformed his peripherals and ERA-estimators. When you perform like a number three but give up runs like a quad-A arm, no one will notice that you performed like a good number 4. Consequently, when an analyst points out that Velasquez should get better results in the future, many fans don’t want to hear it. Years of experience has taught them that Velasquez somehow pitches worse than his peripherals indicate.
Frankly, that’s bupkis. In the two seasons where his ERA has been egregiously out of step with his FIP, we can find causes that are very unlikely to repeat. In 2018, when his ERA was more than a run above his FIP, 33% of runners who reached base scored, five points higher than his career average and easily his worst. In 2020, when his ERA was almost 1.5 runs higher than his FIP, he gave up a .373 BABIP, 55 points higher than his career average and, given the Phillies terrible defense, certainly not his fault. Even if you think some of these issues were Velasquez’s responsibility, you shouldn’t expect such singular outliers to accumulate again.
So, with that said, let’s set aside the narratives and look at who VV is. He’s a solid back-end starter who can help a contending team get through a long season, unless he has an off-year and needs to be removed from the rotation. As a pitcher he’s a dichotomy. Let’s take a look at what each branch of the dichotomy looks like.
What will the bad version of Velasquez look like? Well, it looks a lot like a dinger’s flight path. In both 2017 and 2019, Velasquez surrendered nearly 2 HRs per 9 innings. Why exactly he was homer-prone in those two seasons is harder to say. In general Velasquez is vulnerable to hard contact because, although his four-seamer has excellent rise, it doesn’t move much horizontally and he doesn’t have an elite secondary pitch to compensate. But that is true in every season.
My best guess for why 2017 and 2019 stand out is pitch-mix. In both seasons Velasquez threw his four-seamer more than 60% of the time and relied primarily on one secondary pitch (curve in 2017, slider in 2019). In both seasons just two pitches accounted for more than 80% of the pitches he delivered. In 2019, I suspect that Velasquez was following an overly simplistic game plan handed down from former pitching coach Chris Young.
I don’t know why Velasquez focussed so heavily on just two pitches in 2017. It is possible he did not feel confident in his other pitches, for whatever reason. And there’s the rub. It is conceivable that Velasquez will not have the feel for some of his pitches this season and that he will reduce his arsenal to a more predictable mix. If that happens, let’s hope he doesn’t linger in the rotation for long.
A LITTLE HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS
That’s the pessimistic outlook. What about the good version of Velasquez? To be honest, it looks a lot like what we saw last season. In the shortened 2020 season, Velasquez struck out nearly 30% of batters and walked 11%. Both numbers were above his norms, but the result was the second best K-BB% in his career. Combined with a league-average home run rate, those peripherals yielded a 4.16 FIP, about 10% better than the average starter. That quality of performance is what we normally see in a good Velasquez season. The individual peripherals might fluctuate but the outcome does not.
What we won’t see if Velasquez has a good season are a .373 BABIP or one-third of runners who reach base scoring. Much, though not all, of this is out of Velasquez’s control. BABIP is heavily determined by the defense, and strand rates depend a lot on defense and the bullpen. Velasquez will never be an efficient pitcher. He’ll throw a lot of pitches to each hitter. And he’ll throw a lot of pitches with runners on base. But with a little help—the sort of help starters on others teams get routinely—those shortcomings won’t translate to runs.
What if, for once, Velasquez’s ERA lives up to his FIP in a good season? At 10% better than the average starter you might think he’d be at least an average number 3. But we all know that he has an upper limit on his usefulness. Because he is so inefficient, Velasquez has averaged just shy of 5 innings per start for his career. Any gameplan on VV-day must include at least 4 innings from the bullpen. That’s just who he is, and it is no small driver of the fanbase’s consternation with him. It also limits his value to the Phillies specifically because, even though their bullpen is better than last year, it is not a strength. The more it has to be used the more it will be exposed.
As a result, it is hard to see even the good version of Velasquez as anything more than a fifth starter for the Phillies. He’s a good candidate to use in a piggyback, and if a start is to be skipped, let it be his. And if he’s starting game four of a seven game series, that’s a tough series to win.
But don’t underestimate the value of Velasquez as a fifth starter. Almost every team in the league would be ecstatic to have a fifth starter who can prevent runs at 10% better than average. In the course of a long season, that kind of depth could be crucial to a playoff race.