The Wrong Solution To The Wrong Problem

The Phillies are intent on getting Vince Velasquez deeper into his starts. Poor pitch economy is the oft-cited culprit of his short outings and also the focus of most offhand solutions. Here is the theory: by throwing fewer pitches to each batter, he will ultimately see more batters over the course of a game, and lengthier starts will follow. A well-conceived plan.

On a per batter basis, Velasquez does throw more pitches than the average starting pitcher. This is also true of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Noah Syndergaard, and other pitchers ideal for Velasquez to emulate. Where the economical pitcher is averaging 3.7 pitches per batter, these pitching giants are throwing closer to 4.0. The reason: a big swing-and-miss fastball. Because these fastballs miss bats at a high rate, fewer balls are put into play. Deeper counts naturally follow.

Improving pitch economy, then, would require Velasquez to make his fastball more hittable. Or select a less effective pitch to throw. Either way, the idea is the same: cede contact and let the hitter get himself out. Hitters, it should be noted, have no such intention.

Better pitch economy is a valid point in going deeper into a game, but it misses the bigger picture. The depth of a start is not measured by the number of batters faced. It’s measured by the number of outs a pitcher gets. The way the Phillies are asking Velasquez to use his fastball, they are not maximizing his ability to get outs.

What pitchers and coaches likely mean when they speak of pitching to contact: target a location that allows for the weakest batted ball, rather than the highest chance of missing a bat. In many cases, that is the low and outside corner of the strike zone. This is what the Phillies are asking Velasquez to do. Keep the ball down in the zone for weak contact, and the strikeouts will follow as a consequence of his natural talent. In the case of Velasquez, this is the wrong approach.

By my haphazard calculations, it would take three thousand or more words to explain the ideal location of a Velasquez fastball. A daunting task. Thankfully, there is a fortuitous exchange rate between pictures and words to leverage in this endeavor.

Like most pitchers, Velasquez gets the most fastball whiffs at, and above, the top of the strike zone. Unlike most pitchers, Velasquez accumulates these whiffs at an extraordinary rate. Consider: since the dawn of the PITCHf/x era, Velasquez has the second highest whiff/swing rate among all starting pitcher fastballs (min. 1000 thrown). Consider further: he has reached that level without exploiting the area of the zone he would benefit most.

Lest you get caught up in the false idea that pitching down in the zone is necessary for weaker contact, observe. Or if you prefer the process over results interpretation Statcast affords: his average contact at the top of the zone leaves the bat at 87.3 mph and a launch angle of 32.9 degrees, the rough equivalent of a lazy fly ball. At the bottom of the zone, 93.2 mph and 17.8 degrees, or a hard hit line drive.

The striking note here is that Velasquez induces nearly as many swings directly above the strike zone (55.1%) as he does in the lower third of the strike zone (58.9%). That bodes well for missing high, whether by accident or intention, as those frequent swings lead to whiffs and easy outs. Aiming low and then missing low, on the other hand, does not carry those same advantages.

By keeping his fastball down in the strike zone, Velasquez is both drawing fewer whiffs and leaving himself susceptible to better contact. In the effort to improve economy, he is diminishing effectiveness.

The fastball is only one piece of the puzzle for Velasquez. At some point, there is the matter of other pitches to address. But the fastball is his best pitch. Pulling punches to improve pitch economy runs contrary to making him a better pitcher. The way to deeper starts is to get outs.

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  1. Daniel Walmer

    May 01, 2017 05:47 PM

    Tim, I don’t disagree, but what should he be doing better to avoid throwing 100 pitches in 4 innings? Or do you think his stuff makes him best suited as a high-leverage reliever who doesn’t have to worry about pitch count?

    • Mike Fassano

      May 04, 2017 10:35 AM

      I got killed on this same site for suggesting the same thing. The fans want to give him another year or two to figure it out. Figure what out, I say. His ERA is 5.47. Last year his ERA was 4.12. In 36 starts he has 1 complete game. Who knows? Velasquez could end up being a better closer than the guy he was traded for (Ken Giles).

  2. Walmer13

    May 01, 2017 05:47 PM

    Tim, I don’t disagree, but what should he be doing better to avoid throwing 100 pitches in 4 innings? Or do you think his stuff makes him best suited as a high-leverage reliever who doesn’t have to worry about pitch count?

    • Tony

      May 01, 2017 05:58 PM

      Walking fewer than 5 batters per 9 IP would be a good way to do it. What’s leading to the walks is bad control of his secondary offerings that gets him behind in the counts, which makes him nibble corners with the heater, and they’re not chasing. Or he grooves one and they hit it a mile. Scherzer, Verlander, and Thor aren’t wasting pitches issuing walks.

      • Every "Pitching Coach"

        May 02, 2017 11:20 AM

        “all you have to do is dot the high inside black with the fastball and throw devasting sliders to the outer black.” Gee why didn’t I think of that, it’s just so easy and simple.

  3. Ash Richburn

    May 01, 2017 05:57 PM

    I give this article a grade of “K”.
    Looking forward to watching him tonight in light of this.

  4. Andrew R.

    May 01, 2017 06:04 PM

    The bottom line is, Vince needs to command his fastball. He’s been throwing baseballs since a young age. At some point, you gotta put the ball where the catcher puts his mitt.

  5. Mike Fassano

    May 01, 2017 06:58 PM

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Velasquez is our future closer. There is no shame in that, he could be an elite one. He’s got a bulldog mentality and wants to strike every batter out.

    • TommyDigital

      May 02, 2017 09:11 AM

      I agree but got murdered for saying that last year

  6. Ash Richburn

    May 01, 2017 11:34 PM

    Velasquez throws 97 pitches (63 strikes) in 5 innings, with a huge lead, when he allowed only 5 baserunners (2 hits and 3 BBs). 4.85 pitches per batter. Not economical.

  7. timbo

    May 02, 2017 09:25 AM

    Agreed. Scherzer, Verlander and Syndergaard seem like they would be pitchers to emulate. I wonder what the same graphs look like for them.

  8. denzen

    May 02, 2017 10:43 AM

    Don’t you feel like if he could better develop a way to get outs with weak contact, that would give him more weapons. He would still have the big strikeout pitch when need he needs it. He is still a work in progress (as are the Phils), but I think he truely has the stuff to be a top of the rotation guy. I would hate to see go to the pen for that reason, and it seems closers have a limited shelf life.

  9. All Due Respect

    May 02, 2017 11:15 AM

    Tim. Just trying to get some context. But can you share with us your baseball experience? Highest level reached & position. I promise you this is not a strawman question implying that unless you played you don’t know anything. It’s simply a way to try and better understand where you’re coming from & your analysis. Thanks.

    • Mark

      May 02, 2017 11:36 AM

      What does that matter? His argument/analysis stands on its own and he’s provided more than enough support/commentary for you to determine whether or not his argument is sound.

      • Purple Hayes

        May 02, 2017 12:00 PM

        That’s the point. Trying to get context. It’s very difficult to discuss a topic with someone who just doesn’t understand because they just don’t get it. This is not to say that’s what Tim is AT ALL, don’t get me wrong. Just trying to get a common understanding and starting point to start understanding each other.

      • Ash Richburn

        May 02, 2017 12:29 PM

        I don’t understand why this is a difficult topic to discuss. What does “who just doesn’t understand because they just don’t get it” mean? The starting point to get a common understanding is to ask specific questions based on the article’s content in order to get clarification on data, conclusions, and opinions expressed.

      • Purple Hayes

        May 02, 2017 01:24 PM

        You’re proving my point….

      • Ash Richburn

        May 02, 2017 01:51 PM

        Sorry. I think I’m confusing different repliers.

        During last night’s broadcast, there was an interesting comment about Velasquez — that the coaching staff is noticing… He has terrific command in the bullpen and doesn’t have that command on the mound in a game.

        That is a head problem. That is a problem with confidence. That could mean a lot of different things.

  10. Purple Hayes

    May 02, 2017 12:17 PM

    While it is true that a good batting practice fastball thrown in game is one of the most underrated pitches to fans in today’s triple digit game, Greg Maddux was keen on saying as the pressure ramps up, I ramp down my velocity.

    I don’t have any extra information on exactly what the team is telling VV, but just from watching the games, it appears the team is encouraging him to challenge hitters and not be too cute v. telling him to pitch to contact.

  11. Chris S

    May 02, 2017 01:19 PM

    The biggest thing I saw last night from VV was constantly missing where Rupp put the glove. I’m afraid VV is going to be Vicente Padilla 2.0, on his night Padilla looked like one of the best pitchers in the league, but he was haunted by inconsistency. Very similar to what we have seen out of VV so far in his young career. VV has the stuff to be one of the best pitchers in the league, so he should be given a long leash to try and figure it out. However, in the back of my mind I think his long term position is going to be in the bullpen for the Phillies.

    • No Means No

      May 02, 2017 01:26 PM

      But on every night, Padilla looked like a rapist. Ooooh, those creepy eyes leering at you while pinning down your wrists; the stuff of nightmares.

      • Whitey

        May 02, 2017 01:38 PM

        You need help.

  12. Ash Richburn

    May 02, 2017 01:52 PM

    During last night’s broadcast, there was an interesting comment about Velasquez — that the coaching staff is noticing… He has terrific command in the bullpen and doesn’t have that command on the mound in a game.

    That is a head problem. That is a problem with confidence. That could mean a lot of different things.

  13. Bill

    May 02, 2017 03:50 PM

    Do you think the reason his fastball is more hittable down in the zone is the late movement? It seems like such an asset on the high cheese, but at the knees it seems like hitters are squaring it up a lot better.

    • Jonathan

      May 02, 2017 04:31 PM

      Go to the cages and see for yourself. You need an extremely fast bat and great top hand work to reach good high cheese. You need only drop the bat head or serve it the other way if low & outside to hit the low ball.

  14. Ash Richburn

    May 02, 2017 05:01 PM

    Good point on what it take to hit a high heater vs a low ball.

    I wasn’t a very good hitter (I had very little power)… but the longest balls I hit were almost all up in the zone… some way up. That’s just anecdotal information, but it’s always stuck with me… the feel of doing it. I don’t know why. Have no idea.

    But it does bring up the subject of how pitching strategies are changing in some corners of the baseball world… and I’ve heard it mentioned on a recent Phillies telecast — where you will see catchers posting a high target… this is a trend with some teams (based on hearsay) where statistics of some sort are driving the pitching strategy.

    And this also brings up the recently-in-vogue metric of exit velocity. What does anybody here know about this and is there any trend in this metric for pitches up in the zone vs down in the zone?

    • Jonathan

      May 02, 2017 06:43 PM

      This is where the ‘Josh Donaldson uppercuts and so should you’ netbots will meet their doom. Pitchers are adjusting away from the keep every pitch down mantra to combat the flyball trend first picked up by the A’s a few years back. Ain’t no way one is going to be able to keep the same up swing plane and still hit good high cheese.

      • Ash Richburn

        May 02, 2017 07:23 PM

        I have read somewhere that on Rob Manfred’s list of potential future rules changes, a strike zone change could result in expansion of the zone (conceivably upward?) to lower game times.
        That would be an interesting development within the context of what we’re talking about here — pitching up in the zone. Batters wouldn’t be able to lay off letter/armpit high pitches, leading to even more of a trend toward pitching up.

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