The Phillies, you could say, uh, “presented beautifully” throughout the weekend during a thorough and relentless four-game pounding by the Braves. It was a gutless and pitiful submission, but it also mercifully expedited the inevitable, so taking the energy and effort to question Gabe Kapler’s lineups or bullpen maneuvers with faux outrage feels like a futile exercise because, let’s be honest, does anybody even give the slightest of fucks about the 2018 Phillies at this point? I don’t. But I am interested in the 2019 Phillies, and I’m interested in that team looking nothing like the one that has spiraled out of control this month, so that’s why I found Kapler’s enthusiastic vote of confidence in Vince Velasquez after his disappointing outing in Atlanta last week so interesting.
Velasquez has had his moments this season, but has struggled lately, posting a 7.67 ERA in eight starts since August 8. The rotation was a strength for much of this season, but has faltered miserably down the stretch, and the correlation between its struggles and the Phillies’ late-season collapse is obvious. While their roster has several flaws, if the Phillies truly desire a different outcome in 2019, they will need to bolster the rotation. Velasquez’s disastrous finish, along with his history of inconsistency would make him, in my opinion, the most likely candidate to go. But Kapler, who to what should be the surprise of nobody, apparently sees things differently. Here’s what he had to say about Velasquez in a recent Jim Salisbury story:
FIP is more predictive of what will happen next year than ERA is, and that’s why we look at FIP more than ERA. ERA tells the story of what happened including defense. FIP tells us what might happen going forward.
For those that don’t know, FIP removes defensive variables and focuses on pitcher-controlled outcomes such as strikeouts, walks, hit batters, and home runs. Velasquez’s 3.66 FIP is markedly better than his 4.59 ERA, which makes sense given the Phillies’ historically bad defense. It’s also better than the 5.52 mark he posted a season ago. So what does that mean? More Gabe:
Most of the people in that range are really good at their jobs. This is something that I have to explain to Vince—you’re OK. If a team doesn’t value a guy with a low FIP and a high ERA, they’re not paying attention. Those guys get snatched up and asked for in trades. They’re in high demand because the expectation is that with an improved defense and a little bit of luck, you get a much better pitcher and maybe a superstar pitcher.
I don’t know with certainty what Velasquez is, but I know what he’s not. He’s not a superstar. Still, maybe Kapler is onto something. Maybe Velasquez has been better than what the eyes see and is worth more patience. I wanted to fairly explore this idea, and order to do so it required that I step away from the common assessment of Velasquez, the one that says he’s got the arm but lacks the consistency needed to stick as a starter. Admittedly, I’ve long agreed with that assessment, but I tried to go into this exercise objectively, and I want to share what I found.
Velasquez’s 3.66 FIP is the 12th best among NL pitchers with at least 140 IP this season. That alone is probably enough to entice another organization, if not the Phillies, to allow Velasquez further opportunity to stick in a rotation. The other thing that jumps off the page is that he’s made significant improvements in several key areas this season:
More strikeouts, less walks, less homers, and a better WHIP. His 11.4 swinging strike percentage is better than that of guys like Clayton Kershaw, Zack Wheeler, and Mike Foltynewicz. All good things. Moreover, Velasquez quelled concerns about his durability this season. After throwing only 72 innings over 15 starts a season ago, he has thrown 143 innings in 29 starts in 2018, nearly doubling both totals.
As a bonus, he is also, ahem, gritty:
Righty Vince Velasquez got hit with a line drive, so he used his left arm to get the out.
He was later put on the 10-day DL with a forearm contusion. pic.twitter.com/v4ZluXuM4H
— ESPN (@espn) July 1, 2018
Based on the findings above, it’s hard to imagine a case for bumping Velasquez out of the rotation, but there’s a different side to this equation. What rate statistics and FIP don’t evaluate is a pitcher’s ability to effectively navigate deep into games, something he’s struggled with. Velasquez has failed to complete at least six innings in 17 of his 29 starts this season, while averaging just less than 5 IP per start. While Kapler’s points about bad defense and bad luck negatively impacting Velasquez are technically true, this is what truly separates Velasquez from other more highly-regarded starters who profile similarly.
Why can’t he get deep? (TWSS.) I spotted a few issues:
- His over-reliance on the fastball makes him too often a one-dimensional pitcher. Only four starters in the NL have thrown a higher percentage of fastballs than Velasquez’s 64.2% in 2018. His tendency to go fastball heavy makes sense, given opponents have hit only .222 against it this season. His trust in his fastball isn’t a problem in and of itself, but…
- Conventional wisdom is that a starter needs three quality pitches. Velasquez has a fastball and a functional slider which he throws about 15% of the time. But then things get dicey. His curveball, which at times appears devastating, is also inconsistent. Perhaps that explains why opposing hitters raked to a .921 OPS against it last season and an .884 OPS this season. Still, here’s what his curveball can be:
Vince Velasquez's curveball is looking excellent today pic.twitter.com/CHyLysDZyg
— Ben Palmer (@benjpalmer) May 10, 2018
- The last issue that jumps off the page is that his changeup is ineffective or otherwise a non-factor. He’s only throws it 5% of the time and with good reason: Opponents posted an outrageous 1.427 OPS against the pitch in 2017 and have a healthy .961 OPS against it this season. In other words, hitters have put up Hall of Fame worthy numbers against it. While his tendency to leave the pitch up in the zone is problematic, equally concerning is the lack of variance in velocity between his average fastball (94.2 mph) and changeup (88.4 mph), which also prohibits its effectiveness.
So what does this all mean? I think Velasquez deserves another opportunity to prove himself as a starter and not simply because “he’s talented.” The fastball life is enticing, sure, but the drastic improvement he has demonstrated in several important areas this season is alone enough to validate the idea that this guy could eventually put it together. For that reason, it makes sense to see if he can develop that consistent curveball and/or functional changeup. I’m just not absolutely certain that Velasquez makes sense for the Phillies heading into 2019 if they view themselves as a contender. Can they afford to run it back with this same rotation? If not, who’s getting bumped? Will another team be willing to part with a significant bullpen piece or position player that fundamentally augments what is a currently dysfunctional lineup and defense? We will see, but I will say this: I know most people think everything that comes out of Kapler’s mouth is patronizing bullshit, but I think he meant what he said about Velasquez, and he may not be wrong.