There’s no shame in running out of steam in your first major-league season. Vince Velasquez wouldn’t be the first pitcher to do so and then go on to great things, and he wouldn’t be the last. It is as much a part of the typical growing pains for any young pitcher as it is any kind of warning sign.
Still, when one of the biggest knocks on you coming up as a prospect is that it’s not clear you will be able to hold up as a starter, it’s going to look like a red flag. Whether it’s just confirmation bias, it’s hard to ignore that -- well ahead of his planned shutdown date -- Velasquez started fading.
Velasquez had a 3.32 ERA on July 29, before giving up 24 earned runs in his final 33 1/3 innings, dropping him all the way to 4.12.
Taken as a whole, Velasquez’s rookie season for the Phillies doesn’t look bad, but it doesn’t look great either. He struck out 27.6 percent of all opposing batters, good for eighth in baseball among starters, and his walk rate was exactly league average, both of which are very good signs for him moving forward. However, in addition to his late swoon, Velasquez consistently had trouble keeping the ball in the yard, allowing 1.44 HR/9. All in all, it looks like a mixed bag for the 24-year-old, and his peripherals mostly back that up. Velasquez’s 4.12 ERA is only a bit higher than his 3.96 FIP.
However, the top-line results don’t tell the story of just how dominant Velasquez was at his best. He put together one of the best performances by any pitcher all season in his second start, as he racked up 16 strikeouts with no walks in a three-hit shutout win over the Padres. He wouldn’t be that good again, but Velasquez did strike out seven or more batters in nine of his 21 starts -- technically, he started 22, but only threw two pitches in one outing -- while racking up double-digit swinging strikes in 13. If strikeouts are equivalent to potential, there aren’t many pitchers who have more potential than Velasquez.
Velasquez goes about getting his strikeouts in somewhat interesting ways. He was top 20 among starters in swinging strike rate last season, at 11.2 percent, but he doesn’t have one knockout breaking pitch, like, say, Lance McCullers’ curveball or Kevin Gausman’s splitter. He generates a whiff rate north of 10 percent with each of his four pitches, however, and he didn’t really show any kind of preference toward one secondary pitch or the other at any point in the count. That’s because his changeup, slider and curveball all ranked below average in terms of swinging strike rate. The fastball was his best swing-and-miss pitch in 2016, and he relied on it heavily, even with two strikes.
So, Velasquez could use some better secondary offerings. Per FanGraphs.com, Velasquez’s fastball was his only pitch that provided positive value, which backs up the middling whiff numbers. If you want to be skeptical, this is just one more notch in the “future reliever” column. However, Velasquez still maintained a 29.9 percent strikeout rate the third and fourth times he faced better, with most of his issues later in games coming due to trouble keeping the ball in the yard. The stuff can still play up late in games, and his strikeout to walk ratio actually dramatically improved the third time through the order.
That to me, more than anything else, suggests more nebulous concerns. The stuff can still play later in games, but it seems to be an issue of consistency. There’s some selection bias at play here -- of course Velasquez pitches better when he is, you know, pitching better -- but the answer from here may be as simple as Velasquez needing to put together more of those games where everything is clicking.
Consistency is often a lazy answer to a tough question, but that really seems to be the key with Velasquez. This might make Velasquez one of the more interesting high-variance pitching plays you can target this season. He might end up in the bullpen, or back in Triple-A. Or worse. He might also simply figure it out, putting together more of the good stretches without so many of the bad ones.
For the price of a pick in the 15-16 round range -- Velasquez’s current ADP is 180 overall -- there aren’t many players with more potential available. If you passed on the “true” aces, or just want someone with the potential to jump into that tier, Velasquez is one of the more obvious candidates around.