The solution for Vince Velasquez? Become Jeremy Hellickson 2.0
by Scott Butler 4/28/17

Vince Velasquez

After just his first two starts this season, Vince Velasquez started a healthy little debate among hardcore Phillies fans like us (and journalists with the same employer). On the one side were folks like Marcus Hayes who admitted it was time to move Velasquez into the bullpen for a new life as a closer. On the other side were those like David Murphy who felt Velasquez needed and deserved a full season as a starter before entertaining such ideas.

The evidence after two outings weighed heavily on the side of the bullpen-ers:

Velasquez pitched past the sixth inning just three times in his 26 starts since the beginning of the 2016. His inability to economize pitches, along with a blazing fastball with life and distinguishing secondary pitches, made Velasquez a prime candidate to close out games. It's what many scouts suggested from the get go and, outside of one historic outing in his first start in front of Phillies fans, Vince offered little to change those scouting reports.

None of this was lost on the young righthander. "The first two starts, this is not the way to go," Velasquez said after his second poor outing. "I'm not even giving my team a chance to win. I'm not even doing my part. This is horrible."

During the 2016 season and throughout Spring Training, Velasquez and pitching coach Bob McClure worked on extending his appearances and lowering his pitch count. While the 24-year-old - whose right forearm tattoo is longer than most of his outings - continually claimed he preferred more innings over more strikeouts, his performance depicted something quite different.

His words seemed genuine, so why was he unable to put them to put them to the black and white of these things old timers call newspapers?

The contention here is that he didn't know how to execute such a transformation. Maybe he had too many people in his ear at once with differing opinions.

Perhaps the simplest solution was right in front of him: just do what that guy does, with that guy being Jeremy Hellickson.

"This guy, sometimes I watch him pitch and when he's doing it right, it looks like he's just playing catch with the catcher," Mackanin said about Hellickson. "Catcher puts down a location and he throws it there. They throw it back. Just like they're having a game of catch. A really super job by him."

The same description has not been given to Velasquez.

You'd have a hard time finding two pitchers much different than Velasquez and Hellickson. Velasquez's average fastball velocity is nearly 94mph; Hellickson's is a touch under 90. Velasquez's strikeouts per nine innings in his career is 10.04; Hellickson's is 6.71. Vince's career walk rate is 3.38; Hellickson's is 2.70.

Both pitchers took their own caricatures to an extreme this season. Hellickson's walk rate is 0.9 this season with an average of 3.3 strikeouts per game. Velasquez, through his first two starts, averaged 7 walks per nine innings and 17 strikeouts.

Whether it was through execution or sheer determination, in his last two outings, Velasquez became the ghost writer of Hellickson's masterpieces. He dropped both his walk rate and strikeout rate to 2.4 (each rate below that of Hellickson over his career).

We could micro-analyze Velasquez's performances with some advanced metrics, or recognize that the reason is as simple as staying away from the middle of the plate, working on the corners, and keeping the ball down. Here's a comparison of Velasquez in his first two starts versus his last two.

Velasquez first two starts versus last two

  Outside strike zone Inside strike zone High Low
First 2 starts 55% (106) 45% (88) 25% (49) 49% (95)
Last 2 starts 62% (112) 38% (69) 20% (36) 65% (117)

Now, let's compare his last two starts to all four of Hellickson's:

Hellickson 2017

  Outside strike zone Inside strike zone High Low
Velasquez last two starts 62% (112) 38% (69) 20% (36) 65% (117)
Hellickson's 4 starts 62% (250) 28% (154) 17% (68) 63% (254)

Bother pitchers kept the ball down and worked on the outer edges at remarkably similar rates, with the only exception being that Velasquez delivered more pitches in the middle of the plate.

Obviously, a pitcher with Velasquez's stuff should not be trying to mimic someone like Hellickson completely, but it is a great starting point for a young pitcher.

Velasquez doesn't have to work on his velocity and ball movement. Those two items come naturally. What he does need to work on is ball placement and control. Pitchers like Hellickson and Jamie Moyer have shown that a well placed pitch can be effective, no matter what the velocity. Velasquez's primary focus should be on location early in the count to get quick outs, and utilizing his raw stuff later in the count.

Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee made careers out of that mentality. Halladay averaged 1.9 walks and 6.9 strikeouts in his career and Lee averaged 1.9 walks and 7.6 strikeouts. Both pitchers lasted deep into ballgames because hitters attacked them early in the count to avoid strikeouts, which often led to weak contact.

That general premise is the same for just about any pitcher. Curt Schilling was a power pitcher much like Velasquez, but his rates were similar Lee and Halladay, averaging 2.0 walks and 8.6 strikeouts.

That should be the formula Velasquez eventually follows. His career rates are 3.4 walks and 10.0 strikeouts...both exactly 1.4 less than Schilling.

Oh, and back to Lee and Halladay for a moment.

Let's not forget that Velasquez is still a very young pitcher.

Roy Halladay started his 24-year-old season in the minors following the second-worst ERA ever (10.64) for a pitcher who made at least 10 starts in a season (you can find more stats like that in my trivia book by the way).

Velasquez has plenty of time to figure things out just like Halladay, as long as he has a willingness to adjust.

"That's not my part of my repertoire," said of his pitch choice in a loss to the Mets. "I'm trying to throw a front-door two-seam fastball, backdoor two-seam, trying to freeze him and I'm not known for that," Velasquez said. "That's not my repertoire, so I don't know why (I did it). I'm glad I recognize stuff like that."

Notice how his focus shifted from the specific decision towards taking pride in his ability to recognize areas of improvement. That is not a common strength of someone who cares more about strikeouts than becoming a better pitcher.

“It’s a matter of making adjustments, Velasquez said. "There’s a turning point somewhere. I’m not giving up, but I know the consequences if I don’t do my part.”

The consequences of his adjustments have been pitching more innings, giving up less runs, and winning more ballgames. That's a turning point we can probably all handle.

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