March 27, 2017
DUNEDIN, Fla. – Vince Velasquez’s maturation as a starting pitcher remains a story still in progress, but his flashes of brilliance still excite like no other hurler on the Phillies roster.
In his fifth and final inning of work under the lights in Dunedin, Fla., on Monday, Velasquez reared back and used his 86th pitch of the night to pop a fastball by one of the most feared hitters in the Toronto Blue Jays’ lineup, veteran slugger Jose Bautista.
Joey Bats uncorked a ferocious cut but came up with nothing but hot air. Vinny from Philly broke into a small fist-pump dance.
Behind both players, on the old scoreboard at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the numbers 97 flashed in red.
“I was telling Mac,” Velasquez said, referring to pitching coach Bob McClure, “that sometimes my fastballs slip out of my hand. … That one I got really behind."
That he did. Velasquez’s fastball came in on average at 93.7 MPH in 2016, according to fangraphs.com data.
But it’s not just about the velocity for Velasquez, but about the attacking hitters in general.
It was just two innings earlier that ‘Mac’ had his own message for Velasquez. Following a lengthy third inning, when Velasquez allowed a home run to Russell Martin, walked Josh Donaldson, and gave up a double to Bautista consecutively, the pitching coach had a stat to share with his 24-year-old pitcher.
“Six out of 15 first-pitch strikes,” McClure said.
Through the game’s first three innings, Velasquez had faced 15 batters. He only threw a first-pitch strike to six of those batters.
If Velasquez, who pitched more than six innings in just three of his 24 starts last season, hopes to take the next progression as a starter and become more durable and economical within individual games, and pitch deeper regularly, both he and his pitching coach know he has to be in attack mode at all times.
“I didn’t do that before and I should have,” he said. “I would have prevented a lot of pitches. But, you know, things happen.”
Velasquez heard his pitching coach and took the message to the mound. He would retire six of the final seven batters he faced, four on strikeouts.
He capped that run by striking out the side in the fifth, getting Martin (swinging) and Donaldson (also swinging) before blowing the 97-MPH heat by Bautista.
“One hundred percent,” Velasquez said when asked if that’s how he should have worked in the first three innings. “One hundred percent. If I could do that the whole time, that’s what I’m saying, if I can stop fiddling with guys, pitching around guys like Donaldson and Bautista, trust my stuff.”
Velasquez threw first-pitch strikes* to five of the seven batters he faced in his final two innings, a nice rebound from the "6 of 15" ringing in his head from his pitching coach.
"And 23 pitches in those two innings," McClure pointed out proudly of his still-developing young starter.
Velasquez’s start on Monday night was his last one of the Grapefruit League season. He had a tidy 2.75 ERAin five exhibition starts, striking out 25 while walking nine in 19 2/3 innings.
Velasquez is currently not on tap to pitch for the Phillies again until a week from Friday, in the home opener at Citizens Bank Park against the Washington Nationals on April 7 (if the pitchers all stay in their current order, as expected).
The Phillies could help Velasquez (and maybe Aaron Nola, too) bridge the gap between the exhibition season and his first start of the regular season by having him stay behind in Clearwater when the team breaks camp on Friday. Velasquez could pitch at the Carpenter Complex, in a live bullpen session or a game.
“There’s a possibility,” he allowed Monday night in Dunedin. “Maybe even pitch in a minor league game, take those guys out to lunch, a pizzeria or something.”
Velasquez laughed. If he attacks Phillies prospects like he did Bautista, he might want to treat the fellas to a nice steak dinner instead.
* McClure actually has his own definition of a "first-pitch strike." He gives credit to his pitchers for a "first-pitch strike" not only if they actually throw on a strike on the first pitch of an at-bat, but also if they battled back from a 1-0 count to go 1-2 against the batter.