Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
On Sunday, Vince Velasquez went out and pretty much dominated a team from start to finish. Granted, the Pirates were facing the Reds that day, but they’re still a team that has capable hitters sprinkled throughout the lineup. They just weren’t a match for Velasquez that day.
It was a vintage Velasquez performance.
Vintage in that he showed, once again, what he would be able to do when everything clicks into place. It was his third straight quality start for Pittsburgh where over the stretch of those three games, he’s thrown nineteen innings, allowing ten hits, three runs, walking seven and striking out 23. Again, a stretch where it all clicked with Velasquez and he showed what we have believed he was capable of for so many years here in Philadelphia.
By this point, you’ve probably already asked yourself this question. Why does any of this matter to the Phillies?
Jose Alvarado is arguably the best relief pitcher in the game right now. That title will probably pass through different individuals as the season progresses, but as these words are written on the page, Alvarado leads relievers in:
- strikeout rate (55.6%)
- walk rate (0.0%)
- xFIP- (0)
He’s among the league leaders in all the other categories that people look to when evaluating relief pitching, which is where the argument to crown him the best comes from.
Think about that for a second. Think back to all the frustrating outings in 2021 and the beginning of 2022 where he may have been just as frustrating to watch work as Velasquez once was when he donned the red pinstripes. While we thought, at least from the outside, that Alvarado’s issues were just his being a wild left-handed pitcher, we now know that much of it had to do with his getting mentally in the right space to get on the mound and find success.
Rodríguez walked Alvarado through different situations on the mound. They talked about how Alvarado was approaching those situations, especially the high-pressure ones, and came to the conclusion that his mindset had been hurting him more than it was helping him....”I think this could be the key that has been giving me success so far,” Alvarado said last week. “Now I know how to get back to where things are good whenever I don’t do well. I’m the same person. I still come in early and work hard every day. I’m more clear on the work I have to do [on the mental side of the game].”
There were, of course, other changes to Alvarado’s game that caused his success - the development and reliance on a cutter, changes in pitch usage - but the mental part of Alvarado’s game has played an important part in his resurgence. Armed with a new mindset and a more refined arsenal, Alvarado showed a national stage during the playoffs, and the team up to this point in 2023, that he can be dominant against any hitter standing in the box regardless of which side of the plate they are standing on.
Credit should go to the Phillies as well. Even back in 2021, we heard about their newfound appreciation for the mental well-being of the members of the roster. As the team entered that season, they began to emphasize the players being in the right mind frame when going onto the field. From Matt Gelb’s article:
One of Sam Fuld’s first tasks as general manager was to reset how the Phillies approached mental training...Craft’s sole focus is on the major-league team, which the Phillies believe can help create an environment more conducive to sharing. It’s not for every player; the Phillies held group sessions with Craft this spring that were not mandatory. Some notable players did not attend. Craft sends an email every morning to players and coaches that includes a brief video or an article and always ends with a challenge for the day. “I can’t tell you how many guys stop in in the morning,” Craft said, and the email becomes a talking point.
We all know the way of playing that was prevalent “back in the day,” how players simply went and played the game, not taking off-the-field issues with them once they crossed the foul lines. “Men were men” is a common refrain when discussing that time in the game’s history. The Phillies, some might say finally, saw past that kind of mentality, instituting new positions on the coaching staff specifically positioned to help players adapt mentally to success and failure on the field and saw someone benefit greatly from the new kind of approach. Alvarado’s success is the most forward facing example, but others may be experiencing benefits from the Phillies taking the mental side of the game a little more seriously.
Which is why I find myself thinking back to Velasquez.
Back in 2017, there was a story by Gelb about how the team had tried to get Velasquez to change how he mentally approached the game. Then 24 years old, the team thought Velasquez believed he needed to change things, but those changes had to come from him, a hint at a perceived lack of maturity from Velasquez.
The righthander, [Bob] McClure said, must improve his mental outlook...“We have to sit down and talk about what’s going through his mind when this is happening,” McClure said. “When it starts to unravel what’s going through your mind? How are you thinking there? Are you thinking more, ‘Oh, here we go again?’ Or are you thinking, ‘OK, this is what I need to throw in this situation and this is where I need to throw it?’ I don’t know.”
It was likely that part of the maturation process Velasquez needed to undergo at that time and age, something not entirely uncommon in baseball. As the years progressed, though, instead of accepting outside help, Velasquez continued to be tough on himself on the mental side of the game while also continuing with the uneven nature of his tenure in Philadelphia. Who can forget that postgame presser where he basically stood in front of cameras and begged for help? It’s not as though he didn’t try. He spent the offseason prior to 2020 in Singapore and Bali trying to get into a better mental state, but the results just didn’t follow. He always looked like a case of a player who was in extreme need of a change of scenery. Released in 2021, he has moved between three organizations prior to this current tenure in Pittsburgh.
Not all of Velasquez’s success so far in 2023 can be attributed to growth mentally as a pitcher. He’s finally taking the suggestions proposed to him by the coaching staff and using them to be more effective pitcher thus far, something we saw little evidence of occurring in Philadelphia.
It just makes me think of: what if?
What if the right group of mental health coaches were able to get through to Velasquez a little earlier?
What if he was able to get himself right mentally, allowing his stuff to play?
What if he started to listening to suggestions from the coaching staff a little more while he pitched in Philadelphia?
No one is accusing the team of giving up early on him. If anything, they gave him ample opportunities to get right before finally (mercifully?) pulling the plug on his time here. Having been on the Vince Velasquez Hype Train before, we can all probably guess what stop his current season is going to end up at (“next stop: Underwhelmingville!”), but at the current age of 30, there might be another level Velasquez can get to in Pittsburgh that he could not attain in Philadelphia. As an observer who always tried to stay on Velasquez’s side, even through the bad appearances, his finding even a modicum of success in this small sample brings a smile to my face. The winds of regression might blow him back towards his career numbers, but here’s hoping he’s in a better spot to be able to handle adversity should it show its face.