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April 09, 2019

Paul Hagen: How does the enigma of Vince Velasquez fit into the 2019 Phillies?

Three winters ago, on a gray January afternoon, then-manager Pete Mackanin sat down at McCormick & Schmick’s in the shadow of City Hall to discuss the long list of Phillies prospects that he’d be eyeballing for the first time when he arrived at spring training.

But before he got around to J.P. Crawford, Mark Appel, Jake Thompson, Nick Williams and Jorge Alfaro – the organization’s five most promising minor leaguers at the time, according to MLBPipeline – even before his trout entrée was served, there was another name he couldn’t wait to mention:

Vince Velasquez.

“He was coveted by our people,” Mackanin said of the right-hander who had been acquired from the Astros the month before as part of the deal that sent closer Ken Giles to Houston. His eyes sparkled. He couldn’t wait to see what the Phillies had gotten.

So much has changed since then. The only holdovers in the lineup are Odubel Herrera, Maikel Franco and Cesar Hernandez. Mackanin is now a special assistant to the general manager and the entire coaching staff has turned over. An analytics staff has sprouted like dandelions after an April shower.

Meanwhile, the Phillies are still trying to decipher what they have in Velasquez, who has emerged as the biggest enigma on the roster.

He made his first start of the season Monday night against the Nationals at Citizens Bank Park, a tell-tale indication of where he fits on the depth chart as the Phillies skipped his turn once as they worked around early season open dates in the schedule.

The results were encouraging. He went five innings, allowing two runs on four hits in the Phillies 4-3 win over the Nationals. He struck out two and didn’t walk a batter while throwing 80 pitches, 49 for strikes. 

Still, questions remain.

There’s been a lot of loose talk over the last couple seasons that he might be better suited for the bullpen and some evidence suggests he might thrive in that role. Last season, for example, he held opposing hitters to a .219 batting average and .683 OPS in his first 25 pitches of the game. Those numbers increased to .264/.803 for pitches 26-50 and .289/.816 for 51-75.

The Phillies early bullpen struggles have added some urgency to that speculation. Three homers, including two by Rhys Hoskins to give him five after just nine games, and some whizbang defense improved the team’s record to 7-2 even though Pat Neshek struggled to nail down the win in the ninth.

Another factor that will weigh on the ultimate decision is that the Phils appear to have some attractive starting options at Triple-A Lehigh Valley. All indications are that Jerad Eickhoff, who has an impressive big league track record, is healthy again. Enyel De Los Santos, Ranger Suarez and Cole Irvin have loads of promise. So there are arms available to insert into the rotation should general manager Matt Klentak and his baseball operations department decide to attempt to reinvent Velasquez.

At the same time, ace-type starters are rare. And even though Velasquez is now in his fourth season in red pinstripes, he’s still just 26 years old. There are plenty of pitchers with plaques in Cooperstown who were still trying to find their footing at that age.

Valasquez faced 18 batters and worked six full counts, but didn’t walk a batter. 

“I thought he did a good job. And I think a lot of the credit goes to (new catcher J.T. Realmuto),” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I think J.T. does a really good job in his game-planning, his preparation, in leading him through an outing like that. I think it would be wise for Vinny to lean heavily on J.T. in his next outing and outings after that.”

Another observation: Velasquez worked quickly until giving up a leadoff double to Juan Soto in the second, then his pace slowed to a crawl. He appeared tentative until Kurt Suzuki’s one-out homer accounted for all the runs he’d give up. After that, he started working more quickly again and seemed to find his groove.

“It’s the first start of the year and you can only improve from here,” Velasquez said. “I pretty much just made one mistake.”

And he was on the same page with his manager about Realmuto’s influence. 

“J.T. and I, right from the beginning, were pretty much in link,” he said. “We knew what we were going to do in trying to attack the hitters.”

Cutting down on walks is a goal this season, he added. 

“It’s just learning how to pitch,” he said. “I only had two strikeouts today. Normally I’m trying to go to that out pitch. Now it’s pitch to contact and make them put the ball in play.”

Managers are often asked before games what they expect, what they hope to see, from that night’s starting pitcher. When Kapler fielded that routine query Monday afternoon, it carried some extra significance. Partly because Velasquez had only one inning of live game work since spring training. Partly because it was his first start of a new year. And partly because, well, it seems like Velasquez is studied as closely for clues when he pitches as a forensic scientist examines a crime scene on a television police drama.

Kapler responded by grabbing his laptop and cuing up the video from last week’s game against Washington when Velasquez struck out Nats second baseman Brian Dozier to close out an 8-2 win at Nationals Park.

The first pitch, challenge the hitter with a fastball for a strike. Then a slider just off the plate. Then a breaking ball for a strike. Now that he’s established he can get his fastball and breaking ball over, he bounced one to see of Dozier would bite. When he didn’t, he came back with a fastball for the strikeout.

“Literally right down the middle,” Kapler said. “But it’s 96 and it’s straight and it doesn’t have any vertical drop. It just kind of carries through the zone. So when we dream on Vince, that sequence is kind of what we dream on.”

Which sums up the riddle that is Vinny Velo. He can be dazzling. He can be inconsistent enough to be confounding. 

“If he did (what he did against Dozier last week) all the time he’d be a superstar. So usually the question is what you’re looking for from Vince. And it’s a fair question,” Kapler said.

Then again, Crawford is no longer with the organization. Neither are Appel, Thompson or Alfaro. Williams remains as an extra outfielder.

And Velasquez, who wasn’t listed among the top prospects three years ago only because he was technically no longer still a rookie, is still being counted on to play a prominent role going forward.

It’s just that the Phillies still can’t say for sure yet exactly what that role that will be.