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.