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April 07, 2021

Why do the Phillies have so much faith in Vince Velasquez?

It seems like every single year, no matter who the manager or general manager is, the Phillies have a guy on their team who is bad, who has always been bad, but who management has blind faith in somehow becoming good all of the sudden.

In season's past, it has been Nick Pivetta, it has been Nick Williams, it has been Aaron Altherr — all of whom (at least until now) have eventually parted ways with the Phillies and, shocker, were not good some place else.

It seems pretty obvious that Vince Velasquez fits this bill, and he brought a little bit of 2020 to 2021 against the Mets Tuesday night, following a 1-2-3 inning with four walks that became four runs in his second inning of relief, more or less costing the Phillies any chance at continuing their unbeaten streak.

"This whole loss is basically on me," Velasquez said after the setback to the Mets. "It's totally unacceptable. I am one of those guys where I need to go out and pound the zone."

Velasquez certainly tried, but his fastball was not working — and without that, the former Astro doesn't have much else:

The outing was Velasquez' season debut and was really the first blemish of the season from the re-built Phillies bullpen. VV is one of just two returning players from last season's unprecedentedly bad pen — the other being Hector Neris, who has been good in his three appearances. 

The 28-year-old righty has pitched in 132 career MLB games, and has a rather unimpressive career ERA of 4.77, with 28 wins to 35 losses. His career WHIP is north of 1.380. He has never had a season with an ERA below 4.17. As a full-season starter, he has never won double digit games. 

And yet, the Phillies decided with the chance to let him walk this offseason, they would prefer instead to re-sign him for $4 million. That makes him the second highest paid reliever on the team (only behind Archie Bradley). Even with the Phillies scathingly close to exceeding the luxury tax threshold, the front office felt he was worth retaining for some reason.

His high salary likely forced their hand in Clearwater, where a fierce competition for the limited available roles on the Phils roster left some talented arms in the minors or looking for a job. His ability to start as well — paired with his having no minor league options (meaning he would be exposed to waivers if demoted) also surely factored in.

And if the reason they elected to give confidence to a guy who had a 5.56 ERA last season because they felt the hard-thrower — who is known for being slow to delver his pitchers — would be better suited for a relief role rather than a starting one, one should ask what data they were looking at.

As starter524.24.722.8-1.258
As reliever33.15.672-1.252

In admittedly a much smaller sample size, Velasquez has not been good out of the bullpen. In late and close games, opponents are hitting .354 against him (in 79 plate appearances). In 17.1 innings pitched in the seventh inning in his career, he has a 10.90 ERA.

It's been one bad performance this year, and the Phillies will certainly give him a chance to rebound. And maybe he will. Maybe it was a blip, his control was just bad, and he will pan out as a productive reliever for years to come. If you ask the man himself, that's his take.

"I need to go back and sharpen up some things," Velasquez said. "There's a rhythm and everyone has a rhythm and I try and maintain that... I am trying to find other ways to try and maintain some type of sharpness so I can find it. That's where I need to come in and close the doors in that situation. In due time it will establish trust and that's where I feel like I am one of those guys who could be in that situation."

With many of the Phillies top relievers unavailable Tuesday night, Velasquez apparently has already become one of the Phillies last options on the hill. And that will do him no favors by way of giving him a steady workload — but it also speaks volumes about their decision to include him on the roster while avoiding giving him innings this early in the season.

There are surely mitigating circumstances. Velasquez, after all, didn't make his 2021 debut until four games into the season, after a long offseason and weird 60-game season before that. And, after being a starter for so long, going from every fifth day to an inconsistent workload can't be the easiest transition.

Still, the best way to predict future performance in sports, particularly in baseball, is based on prior performance. And Velasquez could be blocking a young pitcher with a better chance of contributing, like Ranger Suarez or Adonis Medina or even top prospect Spencer Howard.

The Phillies have too much faith in players sometimes and it's been a downfall for them in the years since their last stretch of success a decade ago. Hopefully it doesn't lead to a demise in 2021 too.

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