March 01, 2017
CLEARWATER, Fla. – It may sound obvious – and it is – but there is nothing more important to Bob McClure’s job than the health of his pitchers.
If the pitchers are not healthy, there isn't a whole lot the Phillies pitching coach can do. And the pitchers, too, can’t contribute or, if they're young, continue to develop their craft.
But if the opposite is true, and they're healthy enough to take the mound every fifth day, the development comes naturally.
“If you can keep them healthy the longest they’re going to learn the game better and just become better pitchers,” McClure said of the importance of regular game reps. “The longer you can keep healthy, the more they’ll get the chance to do that.”
The Phillies do not have any health concerns with Vince Velasquez, who will make his 2017 Grapefruit League debut today in Port Charlotte, Fla., against the Tampa Bay Rays. Last summer, the 24-year-old remained healthy for five of the season’s six months and took an important step in his evolution into becoming the pitcher he envisions.
With a first full big league season’s worth of starts behind him, Velasquez has learned what it takes to realize his full potential.
“Repetition is equivalent to consistency,” Velasquez said on Tuesday at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Fla. “The more reps you get, the easier it is to be consistent.”
Vince Velasquez appreciation tweet pic.twitter.com/JJmmwTMNir— chris jones¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (@LONG_DRIVE) February 15, 2017
Velasquez repeated the word “consistency” several times in about 10 minutes when asked for self-evaluation.
If he can locate his pitches with consistency, and if he can become more consistent with his curveball, and if he can pick the perfect spots to show off his high-voltage fastball with consistency …
“I think if I manage to get guys out early and quit fiddling around, protect my fastball, I think it’ll be easier,” said Velasquez, who went 8-6 with a 4.12 ERA in 24 starts last season. “I think if I can establish my secondary pitches, get ahead of guys, put them away (early). This is a numbers game. I think if I take that into play, I should go lights-out. I’m not saying I’m a lights-out pitcher, but I have the confidence that I can be that, I have the potential to be an ace on the staff if I want to.”
Velasquez quickly paused and considered the room.
“Everyone has the potential, it’s (about) who wants to the most and who works at it better,” Velasquez said. “If I need to stay here extra, do an extra bullpen, work on more reps, do a flat ground, then, by all means, I’m going to do it. Because this is the time now. This is the time to (work). … That’s what it comes down to, being consistent, putting away guys away early, and then still attacking the zone. Also not trying to be the power pitcher, keeping it under my cap, and then when I have the opportunity to blow it by them, there it goes.”
If you simply read his quotes or hear a few sound bites, Velasquez can come off as brash. Instead, he’s more like an overexcited kid brimming with confidence.
And why shouldn’t he be, with arguably the best fastball in the room, a “Bugs Bunny changeup,” as manager Pete Mackanin put it, a curveball, slider, and a two-seamer he’s working on to get more ground balls. There’s a reason he led the package of players the Phillies received back for a pre-arbitration Ken Giles 14 months ago.
Velasquez’s strikeout rate last season (10.44 strikeouts-per-nine innings, 11th among MLB pitchers and better than some guy named Clayton Kershaw) was one of just four in Phillies history higher than 9.9.
Since 1901, Phillies pitchers with a K/9 rate of 10.0 or better and at least 100 IP:
*stats from baseball-reference.com
The knock on Velasquez in his first season with the Phillies was that nearly every time he took the mound the team was going to need its best bullpen arms ready, too. Velasquez pitched more than six innings in just three of his 24 starts and he went five innings or fewer 10 times.
Again, Velasquez brought up the need for consistency … with location.
“It goes back to location,” Velasquez said. “I have to locate first. So if I have two take a few miles per hour off my curveball to locate it, then, by all means, I’m going to do that. If I feel like I have the conviction to throw it and get guys out early, then I’m going to do that. … Establishing a two-seamer to force more ground balls and get out of innings. Rather than having the mindset of ‘I’m going to go out and strike guys out all the time” I’m going to take it back a little bit, take two steps back and (say), ‘I’m going to start off this guy slower, protect my fastball, my high percentage out-pitch and try to get this guy out by forcing ground balls.’
“I’m going to slow down their bat a little bit, and then [snaps fingers] next thing you know, boom, I’m going to speed it up with my fastball and they’re not going be able to catch up to it. It’s a guessing game, but, at the end of the day, if you put your reps in and you're consistent with your pitches, a lot of things will take care of itself. And I’ll find myself in the game in the seventh or eighth inning of games.”
But just as the Phillies like the version of Jerad Eickhoff they currently have in their rotation – and will take him as is, or, obviously, if he gets better, too – there’s a lot to like about Vince Velasquez from 2016, too, even if he’s not regularly pitching deep into games. A pitcher who can be downright dominating for five or six innings is still a pitcher who is doing a fairly good job of putting his team in position to win.
Velasquez’s strikeout repertoire works. If he is able to complement that by getting more early outs on ground balls, too, that’s a bonus.
“You let him go,” McClure said. “If he’s got nine strikeouts and he’s gone five innings (that’s fine). He should progress with that. For instance in the 1-0 counts (he) might be looking for contact, weak contact rather than trying to get to 1-1, get to 1-2, and strike them out. So I think it’s just an experience thing. Right now, pitch the way you pitch. And if it ends up being six innings, it’s six innings. He’ll get better at it.”
McClure mentioned how a young pitcher he worked with a decade ago dealt with a similar problem. Zack Greinke went six innings or fewer in more than half of his starts (36 out of 57) in his first two seasons in the big league with the Kansas City Royals. He turned out OK.
Velasquez, too, has time to become the “lights-out” pitcher he envisions blossoming into some day soon. It starts where it began last year: with more consistent reps.