Phillies: Is recent Vince Velasquez success ‘fool’s gold’?

Vince Velasquez #21 of the Philadelphia Phillies (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Vince Velasquez #21 of the Philadelphia Phillies (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Every Philadelphia Phillies fan is acquainted with Vince Velasquez. Acquired in December 2015 from the Houston Astros — as part of a trade deal involving reliever Ken Giles — Velasquez showed serious promise in his first few months in red pinstripes.

Through his first eight career starts in Philadelphia, Velasquez held a 2.42 ERA — tallying 59 strikeouts in 49 1/3 innings pitched, while totaling a 5-1 record. This stretch included a 16-strikeout, complete-game shutout against the San Diego Padres. Zack Wheeler‘s 14 strikeouts on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Rays were the most by a Phillies starter since this Velasquez outing.

Unfortunately, Velasquez’s early, promising run seemed to be a “flash in the pan.” Year in and year out, fans are reminded in spring training of his impressive repertoire and hope for something different. Yet, they end up watching just the same subpar outings during the regular season. From 2016 to 2020, Velasquez’s numbers are the polar opposite of his first few months in Philadelphia. From struggling with control, to being bit by the long ball and not getting past the fourth inning, many fans questioned why he was bought back this past offseason.

With Vince Velasquez stringing together solid starts, has he turned the corner?

Shockingly enough, Velasquez has cemented himself as the fourth starter of the 2021 rotation. Since rejoining on April 23 against the Colorado Rockies, he has struck out 36 batters in 32 2/3 innings, while batters have hit a pedestrian .188 against him. The question is, can “Vinny Velo” keep it up, or is it just another hot streak like we’ve seen before?

When looking at basic statistics, the veteran is still giving up home runs quite a bit. In seven appearances since rejoining the rotation, he has given up seven home runs — a one-per game pace, which often spells trouble. His walk rate is also relatively high at 3.8 batters per nine innings.

Looking further into advanced metrics, Velasquez’s pitch mix is relatively the same from years prior. He throws his fastball roughly half the time, and relies on his curveball and slider as well — along with his changeup and an occasional sinker. Velasquez is getting hit hard, too — harder than he has in his career. His exit velocity sits in the bottom 10 percent of MLB. Again, his advanced metrics show more of the same.

So, Velasquez is getting hit harder than he has had before, throwing the same pitch mix, giving up long balls, and walking batters at a similar rate … but is having a great season? Yes. Could we chalk it up to luck — with Velasquez being saved by the Phillies defense, although the defense has been arguably the worst in baseball? Sure.

A visual test would show a confident Velasquez, however, which could be the difference. Velasquez has improved with each start — lasting past the fifth inning in his last four starts, all against viable opponents that include the Miami Marlins, Atlanta Braves, Toronto Blue Jays, and Milwaukee Brewers.

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In a post-game interview after his start against Toronto, Velasquez noted that he was preparing better and had “a sense of direction.” It seems that pitching coach Caleb Cotham has made a positive impact so far. It is exciting to see Velasquez fulfill long-waited potential, but for him to “pass the test,” he has to do it long-term.

For Velasquez, he is just taking things day by day — noting that all he wanted was “another opportunity” to prove himself. The right-hander is fun to watch and giving the Phillies a chance to win games. If his success keeps up, hopefully the rest of the team could get the same luck as him.