CLEARWATER, Fla. — Vince Velasquez was expected Monday to throw roughly 30 pitches as he entered the fray for the final spot in the Phillies starting rotation. But he needed just 26 to complete two innings against Baltimore.
“Which is a shocker,” Velasquez deadpanned.
The 27-year-old right-hander has had his battles with pitch counts over the last few seasons. He’s reached the seventh inning in just 18 of his 99 starts, has averaged 17.6 pitches per inning over the last two seasons and needed 108 pitches in one game last August to record just 16 outs.
Those rising pitch totals often led to abbreviated outings, which caused Velasquez to be shuffled last season between the bullpen and the starting rotation. And now he is in camp this spring with an uncertain future.
For the first time in four years, Velasquez reported to Florida without a starting job secured. His performance this spring will dictate his role in 2020. That role could be in the rotation if Velasquez proves in camp that he can be efficient.
“That's how you get deep in games, right,” manager Joe Girardi said. “If you're throwing 20 pitches every inning, it's not a very long night.”
A decision will not be made in February, but consider Monday a step in the right direction. Perhaps it was even more impressive how Velasquez found his effectiveness.
Instructed last season by former manager Gabe Kapler and pitching coach Chris Young to pump fastballs at the top of the strike zone, Velasquez on Monday focused on keeping his pitches low. His curveball induced weak contact, he painted his fastball at the knees, and mixed in a changeup and slider.
“That’s the way of pitching,” Velasquez said. “It’s an art, man. You have to learn how to utilize your craft.”
New pitching coach Bryan Price is helping Velasquez this spring to find a balance by pitching at both the top and bottom of the zone.
“That’s kind of been one of the new things. It falls in that category of pitching freely, pitching to what we see and trusting that stuff,” Velasquez said. “I was very effective at the top of the zone, so I want to see how I can be at the bottom of the zone. The fact that I have that weapon to go up in the zone and utilize that pitch just makes it even more useful to go down in the zone. I know everyone talks about living down in the zone, which is a very quality pitch down and away. But if I can go up and down, up and down, it’s just a way of pitching. You can’t be too predictable in this game.”
Young and Kapler wanted their pitchers to focus on the top of the zone, believing that location presented a challenge to hitters with launch-angle-friendly uppercut swings. But the staff struggled with the new orders and Velasquez’s home-run rate doubled last season.
“I think that’s what falls under predictability,” Velasquez said. “I was living at the top of the zone 95% of the time. My strikeout ratio would have been higher. But again, every game plan was always at the top of the zone, so again you’ve got to learn how to change speeds and live up and down and in and out.”
A decision will be made over the next few weeks as to whether Velasquez will start another season in the rotation. Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Jake Arrieta have spots secured. Zach Eflin should be considered safe, too. That leaves Velasquez competing with Nick Pivetta and Ranger Suarez for the final spot in the rotation. Pivetta pitched well on Sunday and Suarez will debut on Tuesday. It was just two innings for Velasquez against a team projected to be the worst in baseball, but Monday was still a good first impression.
“I think it's something you have to work really hard at. Your body was trained to do it for one way,” Girardi said about pitching down in the zone. “He pitched down before. But then they strictly went up. So it's just retraining your brain and your mechanics. He was working really hard with Bryan on it. Just using both. Why take one weapon away from you? Use both. A lot of times, when you have the ability to pitch down, it makes pitching up more effective. If you see the same thing every time, you get used to it.”