On April 7th, Vince Velasquez pitches the Phillies’ home opener. His electric talent makes him a linchpin for the team’s plan to return to contention, and his four-seam fastball could be the key. It’s his best pitch, and it had the 12th-best weighted value among pitchers who threw at least 130 innings last year. MLB’s 5 Statcast Storylines for the team features him and the 27.4% swinging-strike rate he got on it, tops in the league.
And oddly, even more than his dubious health, it could be his biggest obstacle to stardom.
Corinne Landrey at Crashburn Alley found that Velasquez was in the top 15 for overall fastball usage last year, and top three in two-strike counts. Immediately, we could reason he threw it too much, even when acknowledging the rankings above. But it’s worth noting how, exactly, it looked.
380 of his 428 two-strike fastballs were four-seamers. They accounted for 60% of his two-strike pitches. It’s not just that he threw a ton of heat when hitters had their backs against the wall. It’s that he didn’t use his secondary offerings to keep hitters honest.
The top 10 qualified pitchers by K/9 last year — and some of the best pitchers in the game — present various paths that can be taken with two strikes. The range between their most used and second-most used pitches in those counts goes from 1.1% to 27.3%. The range for Velasquez screams from the page: 43.7%.
It might be easiest to think of this like kids on a seesaw. His four-seamer was like a particularly stout kid (maybe Billy Butler) and his curveball was like a particularly scrawny kid (say, Jose Altuve). The way he used these pitches in two-strike counts didn’t lend itself to a fluid, balanced approach during the most advantageous situations.
The problems Velasquez’s fastball created were subtle because overall it was so good. Guys weren’t driving it out of the park or putting up crooked numbers against it, but they were letting him wear himself out. While he got a whiff nearly 26% of the time in a two-strike count when using his four-seamer, there was also better than a 2:1 chance the at-bat would continue because it was either fouled off or called a ball. The foul balls were a major reason he worked a ton of deep counts last year, and what made making it through even six innings a coin flip all year.
There’s a chance that could be due to where he was locating his heat, too.
A look at his heat maps shows Velasquez hammered the zone with his four-seamer when behind (left). When ahead, as he would be with two strikes, he threw it higher (right). That’s generally good when thinking about sequencing, changing the eye level of hitters, and possibly the concept of having a pitch to spare.
But Velasquez’s fastball is a riser — it averaged 9.75 inches of positive vertical movement last year, or about a full inch more than the league average. While the maps of different counts will show slightly different locations, the big picture suggests his four-seamer could have been easier to take when higher in the zone because hitters and umps alike perceived it was already up.
Landrey also found that Velasquez was beginning to favor his changeup toward the end of the year as a lead secondary offering. While that’s positive, it’s bizarre that it took so long to show up in the majors since it was lauded through the minor leagues. Right now, the opposition knows he’s dynamic but can be worn down and sent out before the sixth inning. As he matures, he could become a force they genuinely dread.