Vince Velasquez and Secondaries
Vince Velasquez‘s 2016 season is officially in the books and it’s hard to find much to complain about. Despite a brief trip to the disabled list in June and an early September shutdown, he set a career high innings total at 136 and crossed the 100 innings mark for the first time since 2013. He struck out 27.6% of batters faced which ranks 9th in the majors among pitchers with 130+ innings and demonstrated an ability to maintain elite fastball velocity deep into outings. Although his run prevention leaves room for improvement (4.12 ERA), the overall performance was solid and more than a little encouraging for the 24-year-old in his first full season as a major league starter.
However, that’s not to say Velasquez is a finished product. His biggest weakness is the cause of his high rate of pitches per plate appearances — his 4.01 P/PA ranks 21st of 126 qualified pitchers — which, by extension, limited him to less than seven innings in 21 of his 24 starts this season. That weakness? You can either call it fastball over-reliance or ineffective secondaries depending on how you want to slant it.
First let’s take a look at where Velasquez falls on the major league leaderboard in terms of fastball usage. Using Statcast search, I sorted all 102 pitchers with 2,000+ pitches thrown this year by the percentage of pitches that were classified as either a four-seam fastball or a two-seam fastball. The results:
|2016 Pitcher FB% Leaderboard (min. 2000 pitches)|
You see the logic-defying Bartolo Colon way atop the list and then a fair amount of tightly packed fastball-heavy pitchers behind him. Velasquez uses a lot of fastballs, but he’s hardly alone. However, Velasquez shoots well up the list when isolating pitches thrown in two-strike counts. I used the same sorting feature with Statcast search, but this time I pulled only from pitches thrown in a two-strike count. I set a minimum of 500 pitches thrown in those counts which gave me a sample size of 120 which is comparable to the table above.
|2016 Pitcher FB% Two-Strikes (min. 500 pitches)|
Vince Velasquez has a great fastball and there’s nothing wrong with using that. However, the advantage off-speed and breaking pitches have on fastballs is that they’re more likely to miss bats. When your out pitch is one that’s more conducive to contact, it leads to longer at bats. This season, the league average for pitches per plate appearance is 3.87, but Velasquez averaged 4.01 which ranks 21st of 127 qualified pitchers.
It follows that in order for Velasquez to be able to more consistently work deep into games, it would be helpful if he found another pitch he could rely on in pitchers counts. Last year, his main secondary pitches were his curveball and slider, but at the end of the season it appeared that a new favorite may be emerging:
Note that he only started one game this September, so his there’s a bit of small sample size weirdness at the end of this chart. However, you will see that through the second half of this year, his fastball usage dropped and his changeup usage gradually increased. When he was a prospect, that changeup was touted as his best secondary pitch, is it possible that he’s finally beginning to find comfort with it at the major league level?
The first thing to note about the changeup is that the overall results against the pitch this season were not good. Last year, batters posted a 183 wRC+ against the pitch and this year they posted a 170 wRC+. Essentially, when the changeup is the deciding factor in an at bat, opponents have performed like Mike Trout.
However, the pitch did evolve during the season. He added about two mph in velocity to the pitch in June and sustained that change for the rest of the season. When that changed occurred, there was a simultaneous loss of about an inch of horizontal run on the pitch and a corresponding addition of 1-2″ vertical drop.
The results aren’t there yet, but the fact that Velasquez began using it more frequently at the end of the season and the pitch itself exhibited notable changes makes it, at the very least, something to keep your eye on when Velasquez is back next spring. If he doesn’t gain comfort and effectiveness with the non-fastballs in his arsenal, there is reason to worry that his future may be as a bullpen arm. If, however, he does exhibit improvement and take that next step, he could soon be living up the promise he showed in that 16 strikeout game.