Vince Velasquez’s future remains up in the air. Can he figure out his secondary pitches? Can he be a starter? Or is he more suited to be a reliever? And the big one: can he stay healthy?
Velasquez is currently on the DL. On May 30 of this season, he left a start against the Marlins with a forearm/elbow injury after facing just six batters. An MRI showed he had a “mild flexor strain” in his pitching arm and Phillies GM Matt Klentak said this result was “as good of news as we could have hoped for.”
Last season, on June 8, 2016, he was put on the DL with right biceps soreness before returning for the Phillies on June 27. He didn’t miss anymore starts after that until he was shut down after a September 3 start which Velasquez, his agent, and the Phillies had mutually agreed would be his last start. His last 2 starts were strong, striking out 15 and giving up 3 ER in 12 innings. But his injury history dates long before these two injuries and even before he was traded to the Phillies.
On December 12, 2015, he was traded along with Brett Oberholtzer, Mark Appel, Thomas Eshelman, and Harold Arauz with Ken Giles going the other way to the Houston Astros. But despite being the headliner of those coming to the Phillies, his health was always a risk. While in high school in 2009, he suffered a stress fracture and ligament strain in his right elbow. His 2011 season was lost due to Tommy John surgery. His 2014 was greatly limited After being drafted in 2010 until the end of the 2015 season, he only pitched 352.1 innings. He pitched 124.2 innings in 2013, 64 innings in 2014, and 88.2 innings in 2015 before pitching a career high 136 innings for the Phils (including his one rehab start) last year in 2016.
Even before the trade, there were supposedly concerns about the integrity of Velasquez’s shoulder ligaments although he still has not had a shoulder injury. Nevertheless, this might have been why the Astros were willing to part with him and why the Phillies actively shopped him last trade deadline, with rumors of a trade to the Texas Rangers being most prominent.
The concerns regarding Velasquez have always been more about health than talent. A big reason why scouts have always been impressed by Velasquez is his nasty four seam fastball. It is not 100 MPH gas; although he has touched 99 in his career, it generally sits at 94 MPH. However, it has good rise, decent spin, and hitters swing at it and miss a ton. Recently, Phillies manager Pete MacKanin said it had the second highest swinging strike rate of any fastball behind Max Scherzer’s.
When Velasquez struck out 16 in a complete game, 3 hit shutout early last year, at least 12 and maybe 13 were the four seamer. (One strikeout was 91 MPH so I’m not sure if it was a slow fastball or a fast changeup). However, it is possible hitters are getting familiar with the pitch and its movement as time goes on. And since he throws it 70% of the time, he runs the risk of allowing hitters to sit on it.
So after health, the second biggest issue which will make or break his career will be his ability to get one of his secondary pitches to be halfway decent. Beyond his stellar four seamer, he throws a curve, a slider, and a changeup. But none of them have had amazing results in the majors. His changeup has long been expected to be his second best pitch by scouts, but it has gotten completely smashed in each of the last three seasons.
According to the PitchFx statistics on Fangraphs, his changeup give up a 1.000 OPS in 2015, 0.980 in 2016, and–gulp–1.365 this year. That means his changeup has given up a 1.108 OPS over his MLB career. One problem might be that the velocity gap, or separation of speech, between his four seamer and changeup simply is too small. Over his career, the gap has been 6.7 MPH (94.1 to 87.4), which is below average. This year, it has been just 6.1 MPH.
Tim Jackson, a Fangraphs contributor, suggested Velasquez take after Archer and become a mostly two-pitch pitcher. (LINK) I tend to agree. This might mean phasing out his changeup a good deal, perhaps using it much less than the 12.5% he has used it this year and even the 11% he has used it throughout his major league career. Maybe he can work on it in the offseason and/or get a new grip that works for him, but the results have not been promising in its current iteration.