By Rich Arleo
CBS Local Sports, in our 30 Players 30 Days spring training feature, profiles one young player from each Major League Baseball team leading up to opening day.
2016 season (Majors): 24 G, 24 GS, 131 IP, 4.12 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 8 W, 152 SO, 45 BB
One of the bigger surprises of the first half of last season was the hot start a young Philadelphia Phillies pitching rotation got off to. Led by young arms Aaron Nola, Vince Velasquez and Jerad Eickhoff, the Phillies had 759 strikeouts before the All-Star break — good for fourth best in the National League. Things slowed down in the second half, but fans got an early glimpse of what could be, with one of the most intriguing arms being Velasquez.
Acquired as the headliner when the Phillies traded closer Ken Giles to the Houston Astros, Velasquez didn’t disappoint in 2016. Coming over from Houston after making his big league debut with the team in ‘15, Velasquez earned a rotation spot out of Spring Training and proved effective right out of the gate, beginning the year with a ridiculous 25 strikeouts over 15 scoreless innings in his first two starts. While Velasquez showed glimpses of that dominant stuff at times throughout the year, the consistency wasn’t there.
One of Velasquez’s main issues last season was his control. He averaged more than three walks per nine innings with an 8.2 BB%, one of the 40 highest in baseball. Even when he wasn’t walking guys, he was simply throwing a lot of pitches. Among pitchers who threw at least 120 innings last year, Velasquez’s 16.9 P/IP (pitches per innings pitched) was 11th highest in the NL and his 4.02 P/PA (pitches per plate appearances) ranked ninth. Part of this is the fact that he strikes out so many hitters, as evidenced by his 10.4 strikeouts per nine innings (sixth best in the NL). Nonetheless, the best pitchers in baseball can manage high strikeout rates while keeping their pitch count reasonable, so that will be one of his biggest goals this Spring.
The command issue was magnified by the fact that Velasquez was on an innings limit last year, which is something the Phillies are expected to do again this season. If Velasquez can’t become more efficient, he won’t be able to pitch deep into games and he won’t be able to make as many starts as he’d like.
If he tightens the control a bit, Velasquez shows all the signs of an ace. He has a fastball in the mid-90s to go along with his secondary pitch, a changeup. Velasquez will also use a slider and a curveball (a pitch batters hit .297 against last year and one that he’s made a focus to improve this spring). One look at the right-hander’s 11.2 SwStr% (swinging-strike percentage) in last year’s rankings shows that he gets swings and misses at a rate comparable to aces like Chris Sale and Madison Bumgarner.
As seems to be the unfortunate case with many young pitchers, Velasquez has Tommy John surgery on his resume. He missed some time with right biceps soreness last year and will be handled with kid gloves by the Phillies this season. Should he improve the curveball and keep his pitch count down, Velasquez could anchor Philadelphia’s rotation this season.
Rich Arleo is a freelance sports writer and editor who covers Major League Baseball and fantasy sports. You can follow him on Twitter, @Rarleo.