Who Are You: Vincent Velasquez
This is part of an ongoing series profiling new members of the 2016 Phillies roster. Previous installments:
Vincent Velasquez – RHP
Born: 6/7/92, entering age 24 season
Height: 6’3″, Weight: 205 lb.
MiLB Career: 26-14, 3.28 ERA, 296.1 IP, 29.0 K%, 8.3 BB%
2015 MLB: 1-1, 4.37 ERA, 55.2 IP, 25.1 K%, 9.1 BB%
Contract Status: pre-arb; not arbitration eligible until 2019 at the earliest
If you’ve heard the hyperbolic scouting adage that all major leaguers were once shortstops, Vincent Velasquez is not the player you can go to as evidence to the contrary. An elbow injury kept Velasquez off the mound for the entirety of his junior year in high school and pushed him to shortstop. In his senior year, however, he returned to the mound and caught the attention of scouts with his low-90s fastball, impressive changeup, and developing curveball. The Houston Astros were impressed enough to take him in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft as the #58 overall pick.
After a successful 2010 debut in the Appalachian League (29.1 IP, 3.07 ERA), Velasquez came down an elbow injury which sent him to the operating table for Tommy John Surgery. He was out of game action for the entire 2011 season and pitched just 45.2 innings the following year in the short-season New York – Penn League. His first full season as a professional finally came in 2013 when he was successful in Low-A (110 IP, 3.19 ERA, 27.2 K%, 7.3 BB%) before a brief three start stint in High-A.
He spent the entirety of the 2014 season in High-A, but lost two months to a groin injury. While on the field, he remained successful (55.1 IP, 3.74 ERA, 31.4 K%, 10.0 BB%). Entering the 2015 season, he was on all of the global Top 100 lists [MLB.com – #86, Baseball Prospectus – #75, ESPN – #56, FanGraphs – #75] but unfortunately he was bit by the injury bug once again and missed the first month of the season due to a lat strain.
When he was finally ready to get into games in May, he was sent to Double-A Corpus Christi and absolutely dominated. Through five starts and 26.1 innings, he posted a 1.37 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 36.6 K%, and 8.9 BB%. It was enough to earn him a promotion to the big league squad in June where he performed admirably in seven starts — 38 IP, 4.03 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 24.4 K%, 9.0 BB% — considering his extreme lack of experience playing above Single-A ball. Just after the All-Star Break, the Astros opted to move Velasquez to the bullpen for the remainder of the season. As a result, his workload for the 2015 season was a relatively light 88.2 innings.
If you only know one thing about Velasquez’s reputation as a prospect it’s likely to be his extensive injury history. I’ve read a lot of scouting reports over the past week and they all pretty much boil down to this: “Electric fastball, plus change, developing breaking pitches… if only he could stay healthy.” The concern about his health has been repeated so often that there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s now been overstated. Since turning pro, the only injury to his pitching arm has been the UCL injury which precipitated Tommy John Surgery… four years ago.
Yes, durability is a concern and until he’s proven he can pitch 180-200 innings in a season there will always be a question of whether he can do it or not, but it goes without saying that non-throwing arm injuries are significantly less scary for pitchers than throwing arm injuries. His minor league career (Tommy John surgery aside) reminds me in some ways of Cole Hamels‘ in that his playing time has been severely limited by fluky injuries. Hamels took the next step to establishing himself as a durable major league pitcher so seamlessly that it’s almost hard to remember the injury concerns that plagued him as a prospect. Obviously, the big question is whether Velasquez can do the same.
If you’ve never watched Vincent Velasquez pitch before, the first thing you will notice is his fastball. Across Major League Baseball, fireballing starters with mid- to upper-90s velocity are increasingly common from Noah Syndergaard to Yordano Ventura to Gerrit Cole but the trend has not permeated the Phillies rotation, until now. Vincent Velasquez throws a heater that sits in the mid-90s but will touch 97-98 MPH. The only Phillies starters to bring that kind of velocity in the past decade were Ethan Martin and Scott Mathieson, both of whom had incredibly brief stints as members of the Phillies rotation.
The next pitch you’ll hear about with Velasquez is his changeup. Scouts say it’s a plus pitch — the gem of Velasquez’s secondary pitches — but it has yet to show up in any significant way in his abbreviated time in the majors. Take a look at his pitch usage chart from the always invaluable BrooksBaseball:
In total, he threw a changeup for just 7.4% of his pitches, relying instead on his fastball (68.4%), curve (18.2%), and, to a lesser extent, his slider (5.9%). The biggest limiting factor in his changeup usage is that he all but exclusively threw them to left-handed batters, throwing just four changeups to righties all season.
It’s not surprising to see a changeup used as a primary weapon against opposite-handed batters, but a pitcher entirely abandoning one of his best pitches while facing same-handed opposition is worth noting. It’s certainly conceivable the usage was developmental — i.e. the Astros wanted Velasquez to focus on refining his breaking pitches — but it’s something that will need to change going forward. Confidence and reliance on a pitcher’s best pitches is, logically, an important part in optimizing performance.
The flip side of this is that Velasquez showed confidence in his less touted breaking pitches and found some success with them. Opponents batted (*extreme small sample size alert*) .222 off his slider despite a .444 BABIP and .205 with a .250 BABIP against his curveball. His final start of the season before moving to the bullpen came in Boston and was, arguably, his best start. In the highlight reel below you can see him record strikeouts on all four of his pitches: fastball, change, slider, and curve.
The biggest thing holding Velasquez back so far (aside from his frustrating changeup usage) is his command/control. His walk-rates have been high throughout his entire career and he regularly misses his spots even when he does throw strikes. “Effectively wild” may be a real thing, but if a power pitcher like Velasquez routinely misses his spots in the major leagues, hitters will eventually crush his fastball mistakes.
One other somewhat trivial note on his pitching, I already anticipate the Phillies’ endearingly curmudgeonly radio color broadcaster, Larry Andersen, not enjoying his pace on the mound. He takes his sweet time between pitches, working at a pace of 24.8 seconds between pitches according to PitchF/X data on FanGraphs. For reference, the MLB average pace in 2015 was 22.1 for all pitchers and 21.4 for starters. Recent call-ups in the Phillies organization have largely been relatively quick workers: Severino Gonzalez (18.7), David Buchanan (19.8), Jerad Eickhoff (20.2), Adam Morgan, (20.6), and Aaron Nola (21.2). It would not surprise me in the least if this is a tendency the Phillies try to combat this spring.
In Velasquez’s stellar five game stint at Double-A to begin the 2015 season, his worst game was an outing on May 14th in which he went four innings and gave up two runs on three hits and four walks while still striking out six. His opponent that day was the Texas Rangers’ Double-A affiliate the Frisco RoughRiders and the lineup featured his new teammates Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro. Williams was 1-for-1 with an RBI double and a walk against Velasquez while Alfaro went 0-for-2 with a strikeout and a grounder. Another newcomer to the Phillies farm system, Jake Thompson, was Frisco’s starting pitcher in the next game of the series.
There might not be a pitcher in the Phillies system with a higher, more attainable ceiling than Vincent Velasquez. He is tantalizingly close to developing into a #2 starter. I expect his command/control issues will keep him from ever becoming a true ace, but even if his walk-rates are somewhat pedestrian, he has the arsenal to otherwise dominate opponents. His fastball is mesmerizing and, if the scouts are to believed (which they are), his changeup can be a true weapon. He showed enough promise with his breaking pitches in his first go around the majors that I’m more than a little cautiously optimistic he has what it takes to be a successful major league starting pitcher.
Due to the service time and innings he racked up in Houston last summer, Velasquez is no longer a prospect. Interestingly it seems as though this has resulted in him getting somewhat lost in the shuffle this winter. If he were still a prospect, his placement on prospect rankings this winter would be generating a great deal of hype, but instead he may remains little more than a name on the roster until pitchers and catchers report next month. Mark Appel was the big name in the Ken Giles trade, but Vincent Velasquez was the big prize and the payout could be exceptional.
Last week, Todd Zolecki of MLB.com called Velasquez the “favorite for the fifth [rotation] spot.” I’m not as convinced that he couldn’t use a bit more time in the minors before being called up for good. He performed adequately for Houston last year, but he looked like a pitcher who was called up prematurely with just a handful of innings in Double-A under his belt and there’s simply no reason for the Phillies to rush him. If he shows up in Clearwater and wins a rotation spot with his performance on the mound, that’s fantastic. But if he still needs a bit more coaching before arriving in Philadelphia for good, that’s okay too. Either way, expect Velasquez to be a fixture in the rotation at some point during the 2016 season…
…as long as he can stay healthy.
Due Up Next Thursday: David Hernandez