Who Had The More Encouraging Game: Nola or Velasquez?
The biggest story of the start to the Phillies 2016 season was the emergence of their talented young rotation. Although Jerad Eickhoff has has his moments of greatness, the two biggest stars were Vincent Velasquez and Aaron Nola. Velasquez grabbed headlines across baseball with his 16-strikeout performance against the Padres in his second start of the season. Nola soared towards the top of league leaderboards in the first two months of the season. But then, almost simultaneously, everything began to crumble for the duo. Over the past 48 hours, however, they have both put together stellar starts that have caused Phillies fans to hope that maybe their struggles are behind them. Is the optimism provided by their post-All-Star-Break debuts justified?
On June 8th, Velasquez took the mound against the Cubs, threw two fastballs, neither of which cracked 88-mph, and was immediately lifted from the game. The initial prognosis was that the injury was a minor biceps strain. It seemed unlikely that an injury which presented itself in such an alarming manner (a complete inability to throw his fastball) could in fact be “minor”, but, against all pessimistic predictions, Velasquez returned after a brief trip to the 15-day disabled list and has now made four starts without any injury recurrence.
It was his start yesterday, however, that was the most encouraging. For just the second time this season, Velasquez pitched more than six innings putting up this impressive line against a surprisingly strong Marlins offense: 7 IP, 3 H, 1 R, 4 BB, 5 K, 105 pitches. His inability to pitch deep into games this season has been one of the most frustrating (non-injury-related) part of his season to date, making last night’s performance particularly sweet.
The other big encouraging sign was the stabilization of his velocity. His fastball velo is back in the mid-90s, where it had been at the start of the season.
Thanks to the All-Star Break, Velasquez pitched last night on ten days rest and, judging by the superficial success of the outing, it certainly appeared that the rest did him well. Unfortunately, the outing is not a pure rainbow and sunshine comeback story — there is still the alarming matter of his (in)ability to command the zone.
Per FanGraphs, the percentage of pitches Velasquez threw in the Zone yesterday was just 34.3%, the second lowest of the season trailing only a 34.0% mark on May 17th. His average Zone% on the season is 47.5%. While it’s nice to have numbers to show this to be true, you really only needed to look at his 5:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio on the day to know that his strike throwing abilities were less than ideal last night.
It was a really strong start for Velasquez and it was great to see him work so deep into the game, but it was also a reminder that he’s still a work in progress. Until and unless he conquers his inconsistent command, he will be unable to establish himself as a reliable #2/#3 in a rotation.
Nola’s season took a nightmare-ish turn on June 11th and he remained stuck in that nightmare for his next five starts. Over that stretch, he posted a 13.50 ERA in 18 innings and prompted copious investigations into the big question: “What’s wrong with Aaron Nola?” I first tried to answer the question here on Crashburn after his third start and then followed it up with another investigation after his fifth start over at FanGraphs.
My conclusion was essentially that he was struggling with an uncharacteristically poor command of the zone which led to an inability to miss bats and atypically hard contact against him. However, my most important finding was that the Nola we came to know and enjoy during the first two months of the season was very much still there. His pitches retained their velocity and movement and there were no red flags in his delivery that an injury was the cause. Basically, this was a mechanical and/or mental problem that only Nola could fix but, once he did, there was no reason to expect he couldn’t return to being an effective and reliable stater. I also noted that the end of his fifth start hinted that a fix might already be underway given that he finished his outing by retiring ten batters in a row.
The combination of a skipped start and the All-Star break gave Nola a 15-day break before he took the mound on Monday only to build off the success he experienced at the end of his previous start. His impressive line: 6 IP, 2 H, 0 R, 1 BB, 5 K, 68 pitches. His outing was cut short due to a comebacker hitting him in the pitching shoulder. Given that he’d already gone six innings, there was little-to-no benefit in running him back out there for another inning over icing the shoulder promptly to control any swelling.
The most encouraging things about the outing were a return of his ability to induce both whiffs and weak contact.
Here is his 2016 game log showing Contact%:
And here is a depiction of contact quality by FanGraphs’ Soft%, Medium%, and Hard% designations:
Note how his return to normal actually began in his last start. He is keeping batters off-balance in the way he did at the start of the year and, unsurprisingly, this development has coincided with a return of his ability to command the zone. Check out the return of his ability to move his sinker around the zone:
Young pitchers pitching well is unequivocally a good thing. Seeing Velasquez look healthy and find success is good. Seeing Nola begin to resemble the pitcher he was in the first two months of the season is good. But there’s a clear answer to the question “Whose return to form was more encouraging — Nola’s or Velasquez’s?” Velasquez’s brilliant game requires the caveat that he continues to struggle with command while there are no caveats necessary for Nola’s performance. As a result, the hopes going forward for both are different: that Velasquez can build upon his strong performance and that Nola can sustain his strong performance.