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Has Vince Velasquez actually become a reliable starting pitcher?

How many times can we ask the same question and expect a different answer?

Boston Red Sox v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Vince Velasquez has been a pleasant surprise since he was re-added to the starting rotation a little over a month ago. The Phillies are 4-2 in the six games he has started, which is better than they’ve fared in games started by Aaron Nola (2-5) or Zach Eflin (1-5) over that time span.

But this is Vince Velasquez we’re talking about. I don’t think I need to explain to anyone reading this what I mean; we’ve already written about it extensively here at The Good Phight. For more than five years now, Vince Velasquez has teased us with strong starts followed by disastrous outings and hot streaks followed by freezing cold stretches. By the end of the year, it usually evens out, and his numbers look like those of a typical number 4 or 5 starter. It can be maddening, but it’s just what Vince Velasquez does.

Velasquez is on another one of his hot streaks now, and so the question that we’ve all asked many times before comes up again: is there something special about this hot streak? Has he finally turned a corner to become “a good, viable starting pitcher,” or are we all just getting our hopes up way too high, way too soon?

(For the record, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with getting prematurely excited about a player on a hot streak. That’s what being a fan is all about! I’m just trying to stay realistic, so as to protect us all from having our hearts broken once more.)

There are two ways to address the question at hand. First, I want to look at the underlying numbers to see if Velasquez has “earned” his recent success and if his performance is sustainable. Then, I will compare his recent performance to some of his past hot streaks, to see if there’s anything more sustainable about this one in particular.

Vinny’s numbers in 2021

These are Velasquez’s numbers since he joined the rotation on April 23. It is these numbers that I’ve seen most people cite when they suggest Velasquez may have finally turned a corner.

  • 7 games (6 starts), 32.2 IP, 2.20 ERA, 5.01 FIP, 3.87 xFIP.

However, that stat line is a little bit skewed by an excellent relief appearance Velasquez threw in Boston last week. If we just want to consider his performance as a starter, here’s what his numbers look like.

  • 6 games, 31.1 IP, 2.30 ERA, 5.28 FIP, 4.04 xFIP.

What’s most impressive here is his low ERA and the fact that he is averaging nearly 5.1 innings per start. It’s been great to watch Velasquez pitch deeper into games than usual while hardly allowing any runs, but unfortunately, it doesn’t look sustainable. As his FIP and xFIP suggest, Vince Velasquez has gotten very lucky when it comes to his ERA.

This season, Velasquez has allowed only 8 runs (all of them earned) as a starting pitcher. He’s been able to keep runs off the board by stranding runners on the bases – he has a 100% left on base percentage. A number like that is entirely impossible to keep up, and eventually, Velasquez is going to start allowing base runners to score. Vince’s career LOB% is 73.4% and league average this season is 72.3%. If Velasquez’s LOB% was 73% this season, then he would have allowed about 9 more runs to score. Presuming that 90% of those runs were earned (which is about the league average rate), then Velasquez would have an ERA around 4.60.

Vince Velasquez also has an unsustainably low .205 BABIP in his six starts this season. His career average BABIP is .312 and the league average this season is .287. It’s pretty safe to assume that Velasquez’s BABIP will regress and more balls put in play against him will start falling for hits. That would lead his pitch count and his ERA to rise higher. As he allows more hits and runs, it stands to reason that he will no longer be able to pitch as deep into games.

Philadelphia Phillies v St Louis Cardinals
All eight runs Velasquez has allowed this season came on home runs — six solo shots and one two-run bomb.
Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images

So, as it turns out, Velasquez’s most impressive numbers don’t look so shiny after all. But that doesn’t mean he’s been bad. His xFIP as a starter is 4.04, which is right around league average. His 5.28 FIP is awful, but that’s being skewed by a 22.6% HR/FB, so his xFIP is a better predictor of his future success. Velasquez also has a 3.58 DRA this season, which is very good. It’s about 20% better than league average, and ranks in the top 25% of pitchers (min. 30 IP).

Another promising sign is that Velasquez seems to be getting better with each appearance. His first two starts, when he was still stretching out as a starter, were his worst. Meanwhile, his start on Tuesday against the Marlins was his best of the year. Since May 3, Velasquez has a 1.11 ERA, 3.88 FIP, and 3.56 xFIP in 24.1 IP.

According to the underlying numbers, Vince Velasquez has not actually broken out as a stud starting pitcher, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been successful. If he can pitch 4-5 innings each start with an ERA in the mids 4s, that is good enough. At the beginning of the season, Velasquez was set to be, essentially, a mop-up man in the bullpen. If he turns out to be a decent number five starter, that’s an accomplishment worth recognizing.

Similar stretches in past seasons

So I’ve already come to the conclusion that Vince Velasquez hasn’t been pitching as well as his ERA suggests. Still, I’m interested in comparing this recent hot streak to some of his past dominant stretches.

Velasquez has a reputation as a guy who can’t pitch deep into games, which is one reason why his current run stands out as so impressive. In his first two starts this year, Velasquez only went 4 and 4.1 innings, but that’s because he was still stretching out as a starter. His pitch counts in those games were only 67 and 74, so he could have gone deeper if he had been ready to. In his past four starts, he’s gone 5.1 innings or more every time. Before that, he hadn’t pitched at least 5.1 innings in four straights since in July of 2016.

However, as I mentioned previously, Velasquez’s longevity this season doesn’t seem sustainable. In his best stretch of 2016, when Velasquez went at least 6 innings in five straight games, he had a .325 BABIP and an 82.9% LOB. That BABIP is higher than his career average, and the LOB% is still a little high, but much lower than the 100% LOB% that he’s riding right now.

5.1 innings is also an arbitrary cut-off point. Velasquez has gone at least 5 innings in four straight starts quite often throughout his career. He did it three times in 2019, once in 2018, five times in 2017, and seven times in 2016. In terms of going deep into games, this is a good run for Velasquez, but it isn’t actually as rare as it might seem, and it also isn’t necessarily a sign of good things to come. For instance, the last time that Velasquez went 5+ IP in four straight starts, he followed up with a string of four starts in which he averaged just 3.2 IP per game.

In terms of his performance, this hasn’t been an unprecedented stretch either. Here are some graphs to help demonstrate.

First up, we have Velasquez’s 7-game rolling average for ERA, FIP, and xFIP. I chose 7 games because that is how many he has pitched since becoming a starter (including his relief appearance in Boston).

As you can see, his ERA has been lower than it is now on three separate occasions (although in mid-2019 he was a reliever, so take that as you will). In each of those instances, his FIP was much better than it is right now and his LOB% and BABIP were at much more sustainable levels. Even so, in each instance his ERA still soared upwards soon after.

This next graph shows his LOB% and BABIP. We’ve already discussed these numbers quite a bit, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I’ll just say that Velasquez is clearly experiencing an unprecedented run of good luck. He’s had stretches with a high LOB% and low BABIP before, but never quite like this.

This next graph shows his BB% and K%, which are probably the best evaluators of a pitcher’s true talent level over a small sample size. When Velasquez is at his best, he has a high K% and he is able to keep his BB% down. You can see this on the graph at the beginning of 2016, in mid-2018, and in mid-2019, which were the other times in his career when he has had such a low ERA. Right now however, he isn’t demonstrating that pattern. Over the past seven games, his K% is only slightly higher than his career average, while his BB% is also slightly higher than his career average. As a result, his K/BB ratio has been below his career average all season.

This final graph is Velasquez’s rolling expected wOBA, from Baseball Savant. As you can see, his xwOBA has been worse than league average nearly all season. It hasn’t been bad (it’s in the 35th percentile, which is fine for a back-end starter), but it’s certainly not at ace levels. During his previous low-ERA stretches, Velasquez had an xwOBA much better than league average. This is further evidence that Velasquez is not truly “deserving” of his success right now, and it shows us that even when he is “deserving” of his success over short stretches, he still reverts to the Vince Velasquez that we all know sooner or later.

In conclusion

So it looks like Vince Velasquez isn’t really in the middle of a breakout season – he’s just going through a stretch of excellent luck. However, Velasquez doesn’t need to be a star to be valuable to this team. Going by the underlying numbers, Velasquez looks like he can be an adequate number 4/5 starter.

Eventually, Vince Velasquez will pitch some bad games this season. There’s a good chance he’ll pitch several bad games in a row. And when he does, let’s try to remember this pleasant stretch.