He’s a pitcher, so he can throw hard, but can he run fast, too? Check. Gun down runners? Check. Dive in the outfield? Yep. Play quarterback ... with either hand? If Patrick Mahomes can, why can’t Vince?
While you’re at it, how about being an emergency catcher? Sure. No problem.
Vince Velasquez channeled Ken Griffey Jr. in extra innings Friday. As it turns out, had his story been written differently, he might have been the next Donovan McNabb, or the men’s version of Julie Ertz, or even Chooch, 2.0. Quarterback or midfielder, catcher or outfielder, Vinny Velo probably could handle it all.
That’s the level of athlete the Diamondbacks will face when the Phillies’ hard-throwing starter takes the mound Monday night.
After plays Velasquez made in left field against the White Sox on Friday, no one will doubt his abilities. He made two perfect throws to home plate. He caught the last Chicago out with a sliding play that Roy Oswalt never would have made.
“That was no problem for Vince,” said Monse Estrada, Velasquez’s coach at Garey High School in Pomona, Calif. Now retired, Estrada, 67, heard about the plays and pulled them up on YouTube. “I knew he could do it.”
He wasn't alone.
“He’s probably the second-best athlete on the team,” said center fielder Roman Quinn, who was pitching at the time. “Besides me.”
Velasquez was forced into action after the Phillies’ last available pitcher, Zach Eflin, left the game in the 14th inning with triceps soreness. “Vinny Velo” first played roadrunner, replacing Eflin on the basepaths at second base, where he’d wound up after failing to execute an effective sacrifice bunt. Gabe Kapler left Velasquez in the game and sent Quinn from center field to the pitcher’s mound; Quinn is the team’s emergency pitcher, usually used when the team is trailing badly. This time, the Phillies had no choice, which, Kapler said, stunk. He wasn’t worried about Velasquez in the outfield.
“He’s a freak athlete,” Kapler said. He’s right.
Velasquez threw a one-hop strike and nailed Jose Abreu at the plate for the second out of the 14th inning. Velasquez made an even better throw with two out in the 15th, but Leury Garcia is a lot faster than Abreu, but Garcia still needed a perfect slide to score from second base. The play was close enough to require a replay review.
Velasquez shook it off. The next batter, Abreu, ripped a sinking liner almost directly at Velasquez — the toughest play for an outfielder. Velasquez broke immediately, took six steps and dived forward, catching the ball four inches above the turf at Citizens Bank Park. The crowd went crazy. The dugout did, too.
“It was pretty wild,” Quinn said.
It was no big deal, Velasquez said. He was even thinking like an outfielder; he’d positioned himself against Abreu cognizant that Quinn had already thrown 33 pitches.
“I was playing the gap a little bit on Abreu, thinking, you know, recognizing Roman had been throwing for two innings,” Velasquez said. “I thought he might drive the gap or something, so I took two or three steps over.”
Major-league pitchers, with their awkward swings and their slow trots to first base and their often odd fielding mechanics, aren’t supposed to be athletes.
Velasquez? He’s a career .225 hitter. Teammate Sean Rodriguez is a career .226 hitter.
Last season, Velasquez was hit on the right forearm by a line drive back to the mound. He pounced on the deflected ball, picked it up with his left hand, and fired a strike to first for the out ... before he crumpled to the ground in agony.
Football mentality? Absolutely. As a freshman, Velasquez, quick and strong-armed, was recruited to play quarterback on the junior-varsity football team, but he had a secret weapon.
“I had the ability to scramble to my left and throw with my left hand,” Velasquez said. "I could throw it, like, 10 or 15 yards."
He’d been practicing. Velasquez’s father, Leonard, picked up Vince after school and they practiced baseball at a local field: grounders, fly balls, switch hitting, whatever. Vince got bored. One day, he took his glove off his left hand, jammed it on his right hand, and began catching fly balls with his pinky in the thumb slot, then throwing the balls back left-handed.
“It was kind of weird at first,” he said. "But, I mean, I already swung from both sides. I thought, ‘If I can do that, I can do it while throwing.' ”
That came in handy a few years later. As a sophomore, Velasquez developed bone spurs on his right elbow that both knocked him off the mound and out of his shortstop position, where he played when he didn’t pitch. Leonard recalled a story about how major-league reliever Billy Wagner broke his right arm as a child, which led him to become a left-handed thrower. Vince and Leonard asked their doctor if Vince could play baseball if he played left-handed.
“All of a sudden," Estrada said, “I had a left-handed center fielder."
Velasquez was a skinny, 5-foot-8 center fielder, so other coaches at Garey High didn’t covet him much, but by the time he returned for his senior season, he’d grown five inches and he’d begun to fill out his broad shoulders. Velasquez considered returning to football, and the soccer team had come calling, too.
“I wanted to play center midfielder,” Velasquez said. “Be, like, a playmaker and start spreading the ball around.”
That’s exactly how Julie Ertz, star midfielder and wife of Eagles tight end Zach Ertz, helped the U.S women’s national team win the World Cup a month ago; so, even if Velasquez didn’t have the soccer background, he at least understands the concepts. It just wasn’t to be.
An area scout from the White Sox heard of Velasquez’s plan and showed up at soccer and football tryouts. Velasquez said the scout put his arm around him, pointed out at the soccer and football fields, and told him a story about a baseball player who’d lost his chance at getting drafted after he’d suffered multiple concussions playing football.
“You don’t want to put yourself in that position,” the scout said.
Leonard had built a full-size batting cage in the backyard of their home in Pomona. He’d constructed an obstacle course for his kids to develop speed, strength, and agility. He’d invested endless hours pitching them BP after working one of his four jobs.
“I do regret the fact that I didn’t play” football and soccer, Velasquez said Sunday. “I ... I should have just played.”
Instead, he concentrated on baseball. The Astros drafted him in the second round in 2010 and gave him a $655,000 signing bonus. He made his major-league debut five years later then came to the Phillies in the Ken Giles trade that December. He will have made almost $5 million by the end of this season.
It all worked out according to plan, but it didn’t have to go exactly this way. Estrada is sure Velasquez — now 27, 6-3 and 205 pounds — wouldn’t have needed his 98-mph fastball to make it to the majors. Estrada should know; he also coached Shane Turner, who debuted as a Phillies infielder in 1988, and Dan Cortes, who pitched for the Mariners in 2010 and 2011.
“Vincent might have made it as an outfielder,” Estrada said, “but he’d have even been a better catcher.”