Vince Velasquez: Trouble with the Curve

Heading into the 2017 season, we here at Crashburn Alley strive to update you on a specific storyline regarding many of the returning staples from last season’s roster. Today is starting pitcher Vince Velasquez:

It’s no secret that Vince Velasquez, despite his electric fastball, struggled to pitch deep into games because of a lack of effective secondary pitches. He often looked like he was just trying to strike batters out, while forgoing other pitch-to-contact methods that can minimize pitch counts while still recording outs, albeit those not as flashy as 95-mph fastballs blown by helpless hitters.

By his own account, he’s is focusing on gaining trust in his curveball during spring training, a pitch he threw 13.6 percent of the time last season.

He had this to say of his struggles with the pitch: “If you have no conviction in it, no trust in it, why even throw it?”

Last season, the opposition hit .297 and slugged .591 against the pitch.

If Velasquez can conquer his curveball and throw it with more precision this year, he would add the offering to a staff already heavy with hook-throwing starters.

Location

Here’s more from Velasquez on his mental block throwing the pitch:

“I just have some type of hesitation with curveballs. I’m afraid of leaving it up, I’m afraid of burying it, bouncing it in the dirt. If I can establish location on that pitch right now I’m not going to have any doubts during the season. So again, all those fears, all those doubts, all those hesitations, it’s best to get them out now. Work on them now and when the season comes there shouldn’t be anything to worry about.”Vince Velasquez

That first sentence of that quote is telling: Velasquez wasn’t confident enough in the pitch. He worried about two commonly poor outcomes that can come from throwing a curveball:

  • Leaving it up
  • Spiking it into the dirt

When you’re not comfortable putting the pitch between those two zones and throwing in low in the zone or just below it to induce swings, it’s tough to be effective with it.

Here’s the plot of all of his curveballs from last season. It confirms Velasquez’s hesitations. For comparison, look at the locations of Clayton Kershaw’s curveballs this season.

It’s not exactly fair to hold a 24-year-old Velasquez with fewer than 200 career major league innings to the standards of the best pitcher in the game. Just like you didn’t open this story and (if you’ve gotten this far) disregard my ramblings because they’re not the exquisite prose of Jeff Passan or the witty analysis of Jeff Sullivan.

But there’s always something to learn from those giants of their respective industries. There’s as much for me to learn from Passan’s command of language and Sullivan’s humorous appreciation for sabermetrics as there is for Velasquez to learn from Kershaw’s command of his curveball.

Velasquez’s curveballs are all over the place. He knows as much. A fair amount are spiked down and away toward the left-handers batter’s box, and a lot are left up and in to a righty.

This is what locations look like when you don’t have conviction in a pitch, especially a curveball. Hooks are about feel and the correct combination of spinning the ball and maintaining arm speed.

When you’re scared to throw it in the dirt, you don’t fully commit and leave it up and in. It’s like golf, you have to commit to your shot, otherwise you’ll hesitate and not accelerate through the ball. In this case, you have to commit to your pitch.

When you’re scared to leave it up, you come too far around it, throw it too hard, steal away the movement and angle it too far down for fear of leaving it in the heart of the zone.

Speed

Viewing these curves by velocity further confirms Velasquez’s struggles with the pitch.

Different buckets (shown on the right) are used to represent pitch velocity. As you can see, Velasquez’s speeds are all over the place.

Again, let’s compare Velasquez to Kershaw. (It is misleading to show Kershaw’s velocity charting like we did for Velasquez above, because all of his curveballs fall in the bottom-most bucket of fewer than 76 mph, so they’re all the same color. But his velocity is so consistent, it’s actually scarily accurate.)

To analyze consistency of speed, let’s build a 3 mph buffer around each pitcher’s average curveball velocity and see what portion of curveballs are thrown at speeds in that range.

The range in Velasquez’s curveball speeds was 9.8 mph (Kershaw’s was less than half that at 4.6 mph), so that’s the range we’ll use to compare the two pitchers. On the top are Kershaw’s curveballs. Each bar represents an increment of 0.1 mph, with the number of pitches thrown at that speed dictating the height of the bar. Below those are Velasquez’s curveballs.

The yellow box communicates the buffer zone of both 1.5 mph faster and 1.5 mph slower than the pitcher’s average curveball velocity.

Kershaw’s average curveball was 73.6 mph. How many of the 319 he threw fell into that range of within 1.5 mph above or below that average?

301, or 94 percent of his curveballs.

Let’s do the same for Velasquez’s 301 curveballs that averaged 80.7 mph. How many of his fall within that same 1.5 mph buffer on each side of his average velocity?

155, or 48 percent of his curveballs.

That is what consistent pitch velocity looks like compared to sporadic (and unintended) changes in speed. Using the individual 0.1 mph increments along the X-axis, we see that there are four different speeds at which Velasquez threw his curveball eight times. At no velocity did he throw more than eight curveballs.

Now compare that to Kershaw. There are 22 different speeds that Kershaw threw his curveball at least eight times. All fall within the 3 mph buffer.

Kershaw was twice as likely to throw a curveball within 1.5 mph of his average velocity than Velasquez was. It’s not surprising how much more consistent Kershaw was with his accuracy compared to Velasquez. There’s likely another factor here, given that Kershaw’s curve has negligible horizontal movement while Velasquez’s does present some right-to-left break in addition to vertical drop. So he may be struggling to find the feel for the pitch, which makes managing both the horizontal and vertical drops even more problematic.

Kershaw is the stud of studs and Velasquez’s curveball will never be as good as his, will never drop as much as his. That much is obvious. But his consistency and control can be mimicked if Velasquez gets more comfortable with the offering. Spring training, as he said, is the perfect time to do such a thing.

Location and Speed

Now, if we combine Velasquez’s inconsistent velocity with his erratic command I detailed above, we can see that he displays direct velocity-to-locational tendencies that mark a pitcher lacking conviction in a breaking pitch.

Curveballs in the top left with darker blue hues are thrown softer. These are the ones he looks afraid to throw too low and doesn’t get fully around, resulting in a softer pitch with less break.

On these, he didn’t commit.

The pitches down and away that are more white-colored are thrown harder. Again, this makes sense. These are the ones he is afraid to leave up, therefore coming too far around, throwing too hard, not trusting the spin/break, and never giving a chance to be in the zone or look like a strike to begin with.

On these, he didn’t commit.

The beauty of a good curveball is that it is thrown toward a spot that is drastically different from it’s ending place. A pitcher with firm command of his hook doesn’t worry about starting the ball at a batter’s head for fear of hitting him. He trusts the pitch will careen back toward the plate.

A good curveball is one thrown by a pitcher who trusts his own break and doesn’t choke all movement out of the pitch or leave it hanging. He’s knows the spin–the feeling of the ball being snapped off his fingers–like an old friend and counts on it breaking as intended. Velasquez is unacquainted with that feeling, and, instead of trusting the ball to break toward the desired area, starts the ball in there instead.

This all describes a pitcher who is so mentally uncomfortable throwing a pitch that his doubt manifests itself in both the unpredictable location and varying velocity of the pitch.

If Velasquez gets more comfortable with his curveball, look for that velocity and placement to become more consistent. This increased conviction in the offering should decrease the times he doesn’t fully commit through it and leaves it hanging, as well as the times that he overthrows it and scuffs it on the dirt.

When All Goes Right

Go back to his home debut at Citizens Bank Park, the second start of his season, when Velasquez put MLB on notice with a 16-strikeout complete-game shutout.

During that game, Velasquez got Cory Spangenberg to ground out throwing four straight curveballs, all four in a variety of ideal locations. Here’s the sequence…

…and here are the locations of the four consecutive curveballs shown above.

Pitch 1: While it’s a little up, it began off the plate and nibbled the outside corner against the left-hander. Velasquez steals strike one.

Pitch 2: This one starts down the middle, enticing Spangenberg, and breaks sharply down and in as he swings over it as it crosses the plate precisely at knee-level. Strike two.

Pitch 3: Velasquez buries one, but in a good way, starting it at the bottom of the zone and putting it in the dirt but not so far ahead of Cameron Rupp that he couldn’t handle it. Spangenberg lays off, but this allows Velasquez to come back with another curve, or set up his power fastball up in the zone after keeping the hitter’s eyes down on three hooks in a row.

Pitch 4: Velasquez throws a beauty of a curveball, the best of the at-bat, which Spangenberger softly grounds back to the mound. This one (shown in blue in the graphic) paints the low-and-away corner of the zone perfectly.

He didn’t show that type of control with the pitch for much of the season. But with it, he can get outs without having to rely on his fastball, a skill he’ll need to go deeper into games this season and stake his claim as a longterm starting pitcher and not a one-inning give-it-all-you’ve-got guy out of the bullpen.

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7 comments

  1. Romus

    March 06, 2017 04:11 PM

    If he is lacks confidence in his CB, then prefer he work on his CU and SL, which he only threw for 13% apiece last season….and within the FB arena…mix in a cut fastball, along with his 4Smr and sinker.

  2. Major Malfunction

    March 06, 2017 04:39 PM

    Wonderful write up!

    Looking at the spread of his velocity and then location, you almost wonder how he ever was able to throw it for a strike at anytime during the season. The kind of numbers you would expect to see from someone experimenting with a knuckleball during a game.

  3. Chase

    March 07, 2017 01:29 AM

    If he needs some advice on the mental side of the game, it’s a good thing Doc just checked into Spring Training!!

  4. James

    March 07, 2017 09:16 AM

    Awesome article. One minor comment, it might be more meaningful to treat velocity as a continuous random variable in the discussion. Taking about frequency and discrete different speeds was confusing for me. Showing the histograms was great, but maybe just include the standard deviation instead of counts. The counts, while certainly not wrong, seen to throw out meaningful data.

  5. Chris S

    March 07, 2017 10:15 AM

    His curveball has shown potential to be a really good pitch for him so hopefully he can gain the confidence in the pitch necessary to make it a more dangerous weapon. This was a nice write up and it did a great job of breaking down the issues he had last year with the pitch.

  6. JustBob

    March 07, 2017 12:48 PM

    This was the best piece on here in quite a while. It reminded me of when Bill Baer was at his best integrating analytics and data along with narrative to inform his writers.

    • Ben Harris

      March 08, 2017 10:52 PM

      Thanks Bob! I really appreciate the kind words and high priase, I’m glad you enjoyed it I had a blast putting it together.

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