The Philadelphia Phillies spent roughly six weeks down in Florida for spring training this year. And for a second straight spring, Vince Velasquez demonstrated power pitching in the Grapefruit League.
Last year, Velasquez was competing to become the team’s 5th starter. He pitched so well that awarding him that role right out of 2016 spring training was an easy decision for manager Pete Mackanin.
This year, Velasquez dazzled once again. Over five spring starts, the right-hander allowed just 12 hits over 19.7 innings with a 25/9 K:BB ratio. He registered a 2.75 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP, with opposing batters hitting just .171 off him.
Those nine walks, however, are still a bit too high. But the other numbers continue to reveal his dominating stuff.
Velasquez has a chance to pitch at the very top of the Phillies rotation in the next few years. Of course, his continuing command and discipline issues, and the development of other options, could force him to a high-leverage bullpen role just as easily.
VELASQUEZ BIG LEAGUE CAREER TO DATE
Velasquez was the Houston Astros choice in the second round of the 2010 MLB Amateur Draft out of Garey High School in California.
He came to the Phillies as the lead piece in a five-player package obtained from Houston in exchange for closer Ken Giles.
Over parts of two big league seasons with the Phillies and the Astros, Velasquez has pitched in 43 games, 31 of those as starting assignments. He has allowed 179 hits over 186.2 innings with a 210/66 K:BB ratio.
A big problem last season was that he just couldn’t get economical with his pitches. Velasquez reached the 7th inning just three times in 24 starts. One of those was his final start of the year in early September. He was shut down in order to limit his workload in another lost Phillies season.
Velasquez had gone over the 100-pitch mark nine times in 2016. In nine others, he reached at least 90 pitches.
HIGH PITCH COUNTS CONTINUE DURING STRONG SPRING
During a late spring start this year, Velasquez had struggled through a long inning. As quoted by Ryan Lawrence with The Philly Voice, pitching coach Bob McClure had a simple message for him: “Six out of 15 first-pitch strikes.”
That kind of performance is going to continue to limit the possibilities for Velasquez on most nights. First-pitch strikes will be a key to pushing his per-game innings from five to at least six full. Getting through six most nights, with his stuff, will give the Phillies a chance to win many of his starts.
Velasquez is slotted into the four-spot in the Phillies starting pitching rotation to open this season. That gets him the honor of starting the Phillies home opener on Friday in front of a packed house at Citizens Bank Park.
This year, for the Phillies to surprise and make a run at the .500 mark, they need a more controlled Velasquez to show up most nights.
VELASQUEZ FUTURE: ROTATION OR PEN?
There have been whispers that perhaps Velasquez’ greatest long-term value to the Phillies will come as a closer. That remains a possibility. But that kind of talk is for another day, another season.
For now, Velasquez, who turns 25 years old in two months, will continue to pitch out of the rotation. Especially with starters Jeremy Hellickson and Clay Buchholz as short-timers, and Aaron Nola continuing to struggle physically, his place there is assured in the short-term.
If he continues to struggle with pitch counts over the next couple of seasons, and as the Phillies improve and again begin to emerge as a contender, then a decision may have to be made.
The Phils and their fans hope that Velasquez makes the improvements needed that such a decision never becomes a real consideration.