Vince Velasquez is one of the most tantalizing young righty arms in baseball. Mid to upper 90s fastball velocity, three off-speed offerings and the swing and miss stuff that results in complete game, 16 strikeout shutouts. All housed within a sturdy, 6’3″, 205lbs frame that looks capable of shouldering 200 innings each season.
The 24, nearing 25-year old hurler hails from Montclair, California and was drafted out of Garey High School by the Houston Astros in 2010. Velasquez immediately acquitted himself well with the Greeneville Astros in rookie ball, posting a 3.07 ERA as an 18-year old. Unfortunately, the brunt of a full high school season combined with his professional debut the same year proved too taxing on Velasquez’s ulnar collateral ligament, prompting the pitcher to elect for Tommy John surgery and miss the entire 2011 season.
Velasquez returned to the Astros’ minor league circuit in 2012 and cemented his top prospect status instantly. He posted over a 10.0 K/9 at every minor league level and kept his ERA below 4.00 at every stop, save for a 15 inning sample in high A ball in 2013. Velasquez began the 2015 season in AA and accrued a 12.3 K/9 and 1.91 ERA after 33 innings, prompting the Astros to promote him to the MLB squad in June.
Vince’s performance in the MLB since then has been riddled with peaks and valleys. Velasquez split time between starter and bullpen for the Astros in 2015 and showed enough potential for the Phillies to acquire him as the key cog in the trade that sent Ken Giles to Houston in December 2015. Velasquez subsequently locked down a spot in the 2016 rotation for the Phillies and stormed out of the gate with a 16 strikeout game in his second start of the season. While Velasquez maintained his strikeout ability throughout the 2016 campaign, his inability to go deep into games and his proclivity for giving up home runs muddied a promising start to his career in Philadelphia.
Velasquez has a career 26.3% strikeout rate as a starter, which ranks 14th out of 136 starting pitchers who have accrued at least 190 innings since 2015, ahead of names such as Justin Verlander, Jake Arrieta and David Price. The stuff is clearly there. However, his mediocre control and 1.38 HR/9 rate have led to 4.00+ ERAs every season of his career. Moreover, his pitching inefficiency leads to many early exits and a career average of only 5 1/3 innings per start. In fact, he has only pitched seven full innings or greater in three of his 36 career starts!
The central question is why does a pitcher like Velasquez, who roasted the minor leagues and shows flashes of dominance in the MLB, struggle so frequently? The answer lies in his fairly expansive but largely ineffective pitch repertoire. Velasquez is a “kitchen sink” type pitcher, who has a lot of different offerings but few of which are particularly good. While his four seam fastball is one of the best in baseball, his two seamer (barely used), change, slider and curve are all below average to horrible.
Let’s start with Velasquez’s four seamer. He relies heavily on it, throwing it roughly 60% of the time across his career as a starter. And for good reason: it’s an elite pitch. Velasquez’s career 12.1% four seamer whiff rate ranks 8th among MLB starters since 2015. The pitch also suppresses hard contact, with a sub .400 slugging percentage each season of his career. Velasquez’s four seam fastball velocity sits in the mid-90s on average, and can dial up to the 97-98 range. It also has strong vertical and horizontal movement. It’s a plus plus pitch.
The trouble starts with his changeup, which has increased in usage each of the last two years, up to 13.8% this season. Regrettably, the pitch gets smacked around, with slugging against of .571, .542 and .889 respectively from 2015-17. The changeup has decent horizontal movement, but is fairly hard at 88-89 MPH, likely not allowing enough contrast compared to his fastball. While Velasquez is probably trying to develop this pitch to become a more well-rounded starter, given the results to date he should scuttle the pitch and focus on his other off-speed offerings.
Velasquez’s slider looks like an average pitch. One would expect better whiff rates than 12-13% on a slider, but he seems to limit hard contact on it compared to his other pitches. The curve ball looks poor on both a swing and miss and hard contact front, and its usage has dropped from 18.2% in 2015 to 7.4% in 2017, indicating that the pitch is on the way out.
Not only does throwing a poor changeup and curve ball hurt Velasquez’s performance directly on those pitches, it also limits his ability to work deep into games. Velasquez’s lack of quality secondary offerings allows hitters to sit on his fast ball later in the count, when he is more averse to throwing his off-speed pitches. Anecdotally, a typical Velasquez at bat goes like this: first strike looking on a hard fastball, ball on a curve in the dirt, swing and miss on a slider and then foul ball, foul ball, ball, foul ball, ball, foul ball, base hit. All told, 41.7% of Velasquez’s pitches in two strike counts result in foul balls, the 11th highest total among MLB starting pitchers since 2015.
Unless Velasquez can miraculously cultivate his changeup, or hone an average slider into a plus slider, he will continue to wallow in mediocrity as a starter. Phillies brass should seriously entertain the idea of moving Vince to the bullpen, where he can rely more heavily, and even improve upon, his already devastating four seam fastball. Since relievers only need one, perhaps two plus pitches, Velasquez can then turn all his attention to improving his slider and scrap the rest of his arsenal.
No one wants to write off a 24-year old starter with promise at such a young age, but Velasquez has proven mediocre as a starter and possess potential lights out ability in the bullpen. With such instability among the Phillies relievers already, one must wonder if this is a move that will occur sooner rather than later.