The big story from last night is that Rhys Hoskins hit two more clutch homers, leading the Phillies to a 4-3 win over the Nationals.
That makes it back-to-back one-run wins in low scoring contests for the Phils, and while I’m sure everyone would love to see the bats crank at the pace they did over the season’s first six games, it’s encouraging to learn this team can also win on nights when the offense isn’t firing on all cylinders. Oh, and don’t forget about Bryce Harper’s socks. Also important. Also fire:
Bryce Harper’s sock game is 🔥 pic.twitter.com/t97nWPTl5v
— Bob Wankel (@BobWankelCB) April 8, 2019
Of course, the Phillies were able to overcome a sluggish offensive effort in the early innings because starting pitcher Vince Velasquez, making his first start of the season, kept the game close. Velasquez intrigues me. Honestly, I’m a bit surprised we’re doing this experiment again. After a bumpy close to the 2018 season in which he posted a disastrous 5.68 ERA and 1.529 WHIP, I figured the organization would go a different direction and try to bring some stability to the back end of the team’s rotation. Instead, Phillies’ decision-makers elected to gamble on a fourth season of Velasquez’s live arm that has never consistently met the great expectations it warrants, while using options like Enyel De Los Santos and Jerad Eickhoff as insurance policies. Last night, we got our first extended look of the season at him, and, like usual, the results were a bit mixed, with many shades of gray.
In some ways, Velasquez looked like the same frustrating pitcher he’s been since arriving here before the 2016 season. The book on him has been established for some time now. Big arm, high ceiling, almost always seems to get hurt on his mistakes, plagued by persistent pitch inefficiency that often forces him out of games too early. Really, after a quick cursory glance at his performance last night, it doesn’t feel like a stretch to say that other than the “21” on the back of his jersey nothing really looked much different than it did in previous seasons, but like I said, shades of gray.
Let’s start with the line: 5 IP, 4 H, 2 ER, 0 BB, 2 K
This is a results-oriented business and five innings of two-run baseball from a No. 5 starter will play any day of the week. Both Velasquez and the Phillies should be more than happy with that line, particularly after a long layoff in which he was utilized once last week for a one-inning relief appearance. Still, there were some familiar red flags and annoyances that popped up throughout the start, so let’s take a more complete look.
After needing 14 pitches to set down Adam Eaton and Brian Dozier, it appeared he was heading for a 20+ pitch inning, which is the last thing the Phillies want to see out of him, but he induced a first-pitch grounder off the bat of Anthony Rendon and escaped with a clean frame and only 15 pitches.
Velasquez ran into some familiar trouble here. He tried to bust in Juan Soto with a 3-2 four-seamer that was laced into right field for a leadoff double. Two batters later, he hung a 2-2 slider to Kurt Suzuki which was demolished into the left field seats. No bite, belt-high, out over the plate. Not a good combination:
Kurt Suzuki gives the Nationals an early lead in Philly pic.twitter.com/pNcIVbjRZw
— Mark Powell (@mp2_pgh) April 8, 2019
Velasquez would recover without further incident, but the damage was already done. Through two innings and the first eight Washington hitters, he used 39 pitches, ran four different at-bats at least six pitches deep, and made two separate mistakes with two strikes on a hitter. Sound familiar?
After another six-pitch battle, this time with Victor Robles, Velasquez quickly retired Eaton and Dozier to complete a crisp 11-pitch inning.
In my view, this inning was the most troublesome of the night. Velasquez fell behind every hitter 1-0 in this inning, needing 12 total pitches to retire Rendon and Soto. Then, he allowed a two-out single to Ryan Zimmerman, which was followed by an eight-pitch at bat that ended on a Suzuki base-hit to the right center gap. Fortunately for the Phillies, the relay throw cut down the slow-footed Zimmerman at the plate to end the inning.
Segura gets Zimmerman at home! pic.twitter.com/g9tlllm37y
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 9, 2019
This play was key in keeping Velasquez’s stat line relatively clean. I guess it helps to have a functionally competent defense behind a pitcher. Who knew? Still, he needed 24 pitches to get through the frame.
In my view, this inning was the most encouraging of the night. He followed that rocky fourth with an important shutdown inning which helped sustain his team’s momentum. After the Phillies tied the game at 2-2, Velasquez finished his night strong with a nine-pitch, 1-2-3 inning. He attacked the zone early in counts, inducing weak contact to get through five innings in 80 pitches.
The second inning mistakes and fourth inning inefficiency/missed spots aside, I liked that Velasquez got through the night without issuing a walk. That’s an encouraging sign after last season in which he walked a career worst 3.62 batters per nine innings. Still, he only threw first-pitch strikes to 7 of the 18 batters he faced, which is a difficult way to navigate effectively and efficiently deep into games. Some might look at his lack of strikeouts as a concern. After all, on a night in which his fastball was consistently sitting around 95 mph, Velasquez only generated two swings and misses on the 47 four-seamers he threw. In total, Nationals hitters swung and missed at only 4 of his 80 offerings. That’s atypical of Velasquez, who has struck out nearly 10 batters per nine innings pitched over parts of five seasons, but I wouldn’t necessarily view it as a bad sign. I’m not going to sit here and act like missing bats is a bad thing, but Velasquez could benefit from pitching to contact earlier in counts. In previous seasons, it felt like he was often too eager to rack up strikeouts. Velasquez isn’t going to be a star, or the frontline guy some imagined him to be a few years ago, but if he can make quality pitches early in counts that induce playable contact, while maintaining his good “stuff,” then the Phillies may finally get the more productive No. 5 starter they’re banking on. I thought this was a positive first step for him in a season that will likely define the trajectory of his career.