On April 14, 2016, Vince Velasquez took the mound for his second begin as a member of the Phillies, having come over in an offseason trade with the Astros that despatched Ken Giles to Houston. In a day matchup towards the Padres, he twirled one of many best-pitched video games of the final decade, placing out 16 and strolling none in an entire sport shutout, permitting simply three hits besides. Within the final 10 years, simply 11 pitchers have struck out 16 or extra in a sport, and in these 13 performances (Max Scherzer has executed it thrice), simply 5 had been full sport shutouts. He began his Phillies profession on the best of notes.
Quick ahead greater than 5 years, and Velasquez has now signed with these very Padres on a minor league deal in title solely. As San Diego desperately tries to search out pitching depth to remain afloat within the NL Wild Card race, Velasquez will begin on Friday evening in a pivotal sequence towards the Cardinals, although he is not going to be eligible for postseason play if the Padres do safe a spot in October since he signed after the beginning of September.
The truth that a starting-caliber arm turned obtainable in free company in the midst of the final month of the season tells you two issues, each apparent. For the Padres, it reveals simply how dire their want for pitching is. However I need to give attention to the second apparent actuality: To get launched at this level within the 12 months is proof that Velasquez hasn’t been significantly good. Certainly, in 81.2 innings, he’s posted a 5.95 ERA and 5.59 FIP, manufacturing that has been precisely replacement-level.
Velasquez has proven flashes of productiveness, however his time with the Phillies ran skinny after regularly falling wanting expectations. In Might, Matt Gelb of The Athletic covered what he known as the righty’s final stand in Philadelphia and the way he hoped to reinvent himself to extend his effectiveness. One factor stood out: He got here into this season wanting to combine his pitches extra successfully, reflecting on that April 2016 begin to clarify his change in mindset for 2021.
“Cool, I had 16 strikeouts,” Velasquez stated. “However I fucking threw all fastballs. OK, that’s distinctive. But it surely’s not a part of pitching. It’s not pitching. It’s not sustainable in any respect.”
Because the Padres look to tinker with Velasquez, it’s attention-grabbing to contemplate the place they might begin. Was his plan of throwing fewer fastballs working? Would possibly he have simply been selecting the mistaken pitches to place within the four-seamer’s place? What’s the approach ahead right here?
First, now we have to debate that four-seamer. Velasquez’s fastball is, surely, his finest pitch. Amongst pitchers who’ve thrown no less than 1,000 four-seamers within the Statcast Period, he ranks within the 68th percentile in run worth per pitch, and amongst that very same group of pitchers, he ranks within the 82nd percentile in CSW% and the eightieth percentile in xwOBA allowed. Right here is how that compares graphically, with some outliers labeled:
Usually, one of the best fastballs in baseball belong to aid pitchers, which makes Velasquez’s feat much more spectacular. If we restrict the info to simply beginning pitchers, his CSW% and xwOBA allowed bounce to the 87th percentile amongst starters. That is over a considerably massive pattern measurement, too, which means that these figures are extra measures of true expertise than anything. Regardless of the way you break it down, his fastball seems to be good relative to the league.
That raises the plain query: Ought to he throw it much less? In recent times, there was a larger emphasis on having pitchers throw their finest pitches extra usually, which theoretically would result in the decline of the table-setting fastball. In 2017, Eno Sarris wrote for FanGraphs that pitchers ought to throw 80% breaking balls. Ben Clemens, likewise, wrote in 2019 about how fastballs have become rarer than ever. Certainly, extra pitchers have been opting to pitch backwards, prioritizing their finest choices over their fastball even in traditionally fastball-heavy counts.
However what about for a pitcher whose finest pitch is his fastball? Does Velasquez have to develop a more practical offspeed pitch (his present non-fastballs haven’t yielded nice outcomes), or ought to he go in the wrong way, upping his fastball utilization to the utmost? Earlier this season, Carmen Ciardiello wrote an enchanting article that helps reply these questions, as he discovered little proof to counsel that throwing any pitch more or less often alters its effectiveness. If Velasquez had been to develop into a carbon copy of Lance Lynn and throw nothing however fastballs, it won’t find yourself making him too predictable; there’s an argument to be made that it may make him higher.
Certainly, when utilizing Statcast’s similarity tool, Lynn is likely one of the 5 most comparable pitchers to Velasquez when it comes to velocity and motion. The previous throws a fastball greater than 90% of the time, providing hitters a four-seamer, sinker, and cutter; the latter solely has a four-seamer and a sinker, and he’s lowered his utilization of the sinker over the past two seasons. However whereas there’s not a lot to be gleaned from a pattern smaller than 100 pitches, that sinker has graded out properly when it comes to run worth in every of the final two years and seemingly has no less than some seam-shifted wake that would help in its effectiveness if thrown extra usually.
Focusing again on the four-seamer: At the very least when it comes to CSW% and xwOBA allowed, Lynn’s fastball hasn’t been worlds higher than Velasquez’s:
Moreover, when Velasquez has thrown the fastball extra usually, it hasn’t essentially yielded worse outcomes. There’s apparent bias that have to be famous right here: He could select to throw the fastball extra usually on nights when he feels that he has higher stuff. Even nonetheless, the pitch has graded as properly above-average in begins the place he’s thrown it lower than 40% of the time and in begins the place he’s thrown it greater than 75% of the time. On this graph, zero represents common run worth; above zero is healthier for batters, and under zero is healthier for pitchers:
Which may not be the best technique to reveal that throwing the fastball extra usually will completely work, however it goes hand in hand with Carmen’s analysis on effectiveness and utilization. Nevertheless, the person begin degree should still have an excessive amount of bias to comb via. A greater technique to judge Velasquez’s utilization — one which spans a number of begins — is by taking a look at his rolling fastball utilization per 100 pitches and his rolling fastball worth per 100 fastballs in these segments. I did precisely that, focusing once more solely on pitches he’s thrown whereas a starter:
The outcomes align intently with my concept that Velasquez ought to throw his fastball extra usually to ensure that it to be more practical; in 100-pitch samples the place he’s executed so, his fastball has seen higher outcomes. However 100-pitch samples are nonetheless fairly small — in some circumstances not rather more than a single begin. If we enhance this to 500-pitch samples, the connection does change, and it turns into much more attention-grabbing:
There’s rather a lot right here, however first, try the colour: For many 500 pitch samples of Velasquez’s profession, he’s used his fastball between 51–55% of the time or between 61–65% of the time. Each of those teams have greater than 2,500 samples, however what’s attention-grabbing even when you think about simply these two is that the effectiveness of Velasquez’s fastball is comparatively unchanged: -0.077 runs per 100 pitches within the former group, -0.091 runs within the latter. This implies that changing his fastball with a worse pitch when utilizing it much less usually would, in concept, make him a worse pitcher.
Velasquez’s bread-and-butter is his four-seam fastball. In an period the place pitchers are consistently being instructed to throw their finest pitches extra usually, why ought to he attempt to undertake a special technique? If throwing it extra usually gained’t cut back its effectiveness — nonetheless an enormous if — then he could be a way more productive pitcher utilizing it the vast majority of the time. Who’s to say he truly wasn’t doing precisely what he wanted when he struck out all these Padres with largely fastballs?