Vince Velasquez was still in Florida. Dave Lundquist had gone back to North Carolina. But the former requested tutoring that the latter could provide, so despite being roughly 650 miles apart, class was in session.
That’s education in America in 2020. With schools closed and folks trapped at home because of the coronavirus pandemic, virtual learning became all the rage this past spring -- and perhaps will again in the fall. Zoom turned from an action verb into a proper noun, students staring at their teachers through a computer screen and receiving lessons for as long as they could stand to pay attention.
It wasn’t much different for desperate major-league pitchers. Take Velasquez, for example, who will start for the Phillies on Sunday night at Citizens Bank Park in large part because he went to school remotely during baseball’s hiatus.
When spring training came to a screeching stop in the middle of March, the race for the last spot in the starting rotation appeared to be a dead heat between Velasquez and Nick Pivetta, right-handers with unrealized potential who could be down to their last chance, at least in Philadelphia. If baseball returned this year, both pitchers needed to be ready to resume their competition.
For Velasquez, that meant figuring out how to be more effective against left-handed hitters. It meant asking Lundquist to teach him to throw a cut fastball.
"We did it on a FaceTime call," Lundquist said.
A longtime minor-leaguer who made 37 career appearances with the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres, Lundquist is entering his 13th season as a Phillies instructor, his second as assistant pitching coach. If not for his cutter, his playing career might have been much shorter.
During spring training, Lundquist and new Phillies pitching coach Bryan Price mentioned the cutter to Velasquez as a pitch that could jam left-handed hitters, run away from righties, and serve as a better complement to his signature four-seam fastball than the slider that didn't fool many hitters last season. Imagine Lundquist's delight, then, when Velasquez wanted to learn more.
“The whole quarantine made me kind of realize [that] a lot of guys are geared up on my fastball with me being a power pitcher,” Velasquez said. “I need to learn how to locate something away from righties and in on lefties. I had a discussion with Lunquist. I was like, ‘Hey, man, how’d you throw your cutter? How’d you do this?’ I kind of picked his brain a little bit.”
With his iPhone in one hand and a ball in the other, Lundquist demonstrated the cutter grip that he learned as a player. It’s similar to the four-seam fastball, he said, with the pitcher pulling down on the outer third of the ball. He explained how the pitch moves when it’s thrown properly and why it could replace Velasquez’s slider as a weapon against left-handed hitters.
Velasquez threw the slider 20% of the time last season, second to only his four-seam fastball (62.4%). But whether because he had trouble elevating it in adherence to former pitching coach Chris Young’s philosophy or some other reason, opponents slugged .602 with six homers against the pitch. It also didn’t help him against lefties, who slugged .514 against Velasquez over the last two seasons, the fourth-highest total among pitchers with at least 200 innings.
The cutter, Lundquist figured, might suit Velasquez better.
“It was a pitch that I liked and that I had some success with,” he said. “The way Vinny throws, his arm slot, his arm action, it matched.”
So, Velasquez went to work. When he threw bullpen sessions in Florida or after he returned home to California in June, he sent video to Price and Lundquist. They offered feedback. He made adjustments. By the time Velasquez arrived in training camp three weeks ago, he threw the cutter often enough that catcher J.T. Realmuto regarded it as part of his repertoire.
"We didn't have access to each other, so the next-best thing we had was to see each other on the phone and look at the grips and talk about how we want the ball coming out of our hand and what type of movement that we wanted to create," Lundquist said. "He took to it very quickly and was actually throwing it a lot sooner than I had thought. He had a very good feel for it very quickly."
Adding the cutter isn’t Velasquez’s only change. After decreasing his changeup usage from 13.3% in 2016 to 10.2% in 2017 and 4.7% in 2018 and ditching it completely last season, Velasquez is throwing it again. Sprinkle in the curveball and Velasquez suddenly has four pitches that he says he trusts.
Velasquez has made previous claims of being less of a one-trick pony only to lapse back into leaning on his fastball. Realmuto tried to get him to use his off-speed pitches more often last season with little success. In particular, they clashed in a May 2019 start at St. Louis, when Velasquez shook off several calls for the curveball in favor of his four-seamer. He gave up three homers in the game.
But he did look like a more well-rounded pitcher during training camp. Velasquez was particularly impressive in an exhibition game last Monday night at Yankee Stadium. He beat out Pivetta for the last spot in the rotation and will start the third game of the season.
“I was talking to Bryan Price about it, and we’re not going to be so one-dimensional with [Velasquez],” Realmuto said during training camp. “We’re going to move the ball around the plate, pitch up, pitching down, mix the changeup in, mix that cutter in, and he’s always had the curveball. I expect big things from him.”
Said Lundquist: "We have all these weapons. We're going to use our weapons. We want access to all of our pitches, and how we're going to sequence those pitches to get them all in throughout the course of a game can really change a career."
Velasquez, who turned 28 last month, has shown flashes of his potential. During a four-month stretch in 2018, for example, he compiled a 3.55 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 99 innings over 19 starts.
But he also had a 4.93 ERA over the last three seasons, which ranks 77th among 83 pitchers with at least 65 starts during that span.
In a 60-game sprint season, the Phillies aren't likely to tolerate inconsistency or ineffectiveness from Velasquez, especially with prized prospect Spencer Howard waiting in the wings at the team's training site in Lehigh Valley.
"I know previous years it's kind of been a fluke and kind of up and down once in a while," Velasquez said. "I just want to be the pitcher where I can be consistent day in, day out. I'm one of those guys where, if I know I need to get something done, I get it done."