Vince Velasquez spent the first four seasons with the Phillies as a power pitcher, pumping fastball after fastball. He had velocity, but opposing hitters caught on.
He shuffled last season between the rotation and bullpen and posted an ERA higher than 4.85 for the third straight season. His future as a starting pitcher looked far from certain.
If Velasquez wanted to continue as a starter, he needed to make adjustments. And three months without baseball provided a chance to reflect.
“The whole quarantine made me realize and look back,” Velasquez said Monday after pitching five strong innings in a 2-2 exhibition tie against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium. “A lot of guys were gearing up on my fastball, and me being a power pitcher, I need to learn how to locate something away from righties and in on lefties.”
He asked Dave Lundquist, the assistant pitching coach, how he threw his cutter during his 12 seasons as pro pitcher. Lundquist shared his grip and Velasquez tried out the pitch during his bullpen sessions in Clearwater, Fla.
The pitch felt more comfortable than his slider and it made his fastball even better. The cutter can move away from right-handers and dash inside against left-handers. It was what Velasquez was looking for. So when the Phillies reconvended earlier this month for summer camp, Velasquez not only came with a fresh outlook but he was equipped with a new pitch.
“Vinny is a worker,” manager Joe Girardi said. “And he’s going to work really hard and he wants it really bad, so I think it’s his determination that has helped him make this adjustment.”
Velasquez unveiled the cutter -- his quarantine pitch -- on Monday night. He struck out six batters, walked one, and allowed one run on four hits. He used 25 pitches to get through the first inning but threw just 48 for the next four. Velasquez was effective and he wasn’t throwing just high heat.
He sprinkled in the cutter, moved his fastball up and down in the zone, flashed an improved changeup, and used two nice first-inning curveballs to strike out Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. He was pitching with finesse instead of power.
“He has different weapons,” Girardi said. “He has his four-seamer. He’s added a cutter now, which I think has been big for him. His curveball, his changeup – he’s worked really hard on that and it’s been effective. The four-pitch mix helps you get through lineups the second and third time.”
It was a promising night for Velasquez and enough to keep him in the lead for the final place in the starting rotation.
“But that really hasn’t been in my mind,” Velasquez said. “My whole mindset has been just trying to focus around how to pitch, how to get guys out, and utilize my secondary pitches for strikes and changing things up. I think if you manage to do those things like I did today, it’s going to tell itself.”
J.T. Realmuto drove in a run with a double in the first inning and Roman Quinn singled in a run in the second.
Jean Segura left the game after being hit by a pitch on the hand, but the Phillies are confident that he will be OK.
Ramon Rosso pitched an impressive inning of relief, Josh Harrison made a nice play in the field to help his chances as a utility player, and Phil Gosselin had another hit to keep his chances alive for making the roster.
The Phillies have some decisions left. And one of those decisions is what to do with Velasquez. The Phillies have yet to commit to keeping Velasquez in the rotation, but he is expected to start one of the first three games against Miami. Zack Wheeler is expected to leave the team this weekend because his wife is due with the couple’s first baby. If so, Velasquez will start Saturday.
“I’m just going to leave it that Vince has pitched very, very well and we have some decisions to make,” Girardi said. “But Vinny has been really impressive in this 2.0. Really impressive.”
“You practice like you play,” Velasquez said. “And I’m just one of those guys where I know if I need to get something done, I’m going to get it done. So the fact that I am capable of going out there and performing like I did, if I continue that day in day out, it’s going to answer itself.”
Velasquez completed five scoreless innings Monday night, but the Phillies wanted him to raise his pitch count. So they asked for the exhibition inning to be extended by one batter. The next batter -- Judge -- homered to right field on a high fastball.
“I didn’t know there were four outs in baseball,” Velasquez said.
His night was finished and ended with his old high fastball leaving the yard. But it was his new pitch that offered promise that Velasquez is no longer relying just on his power.