I recently detailed Vince Velasquez’s fastball troubles, contending that he uses his four-seamer too much and becomes predictable, particularly with two strikes. Ironically, his fastball is his best pitch. It might be weird, then, to suggest that it’s an issue.
My argument centered on how his four-seamer usage screamed at me from the page. The odds were so high that Velasquez would throw a four-seamer with two strikes that, if it were a Vegas line, I’d guess you’d need to bet a hundred bucks just to make ten. What about other pitchers though? What are they throwing with two strikes, and how often?
The top ten qualified pitchers by K/9 in the majors last year show us a wide array of actions that can be taken with two strikes. The range between their most used and second most used two strike pitches goes from 1.1 to 27.3%. There is no one obvious suggestion to make for Velasquez based on this group.
That being said, the difference between Velasquez’s usage of his four-seamer and his curveball with two strikes still screams from the page: 43.7%. The difference compared to the range from the top ten K/9 group is an additional 16.4% between primary and secondary two strike pitches. It might be easiest to think of this like kids on a seesaw. His four-seamer was like a particularly stout kid and his curveball was like a particularly scrawny kid. The way he used them didn’t lend itself to a fluid, balanced game at all.
Even Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander – two guys who had pretty dramatic splits between their most used and second most used two strike pitches last year – had third offerings that balanced things out. Scherzer used a changeup 19.4% and Verlander threw a curveball 17.8% of the time. I’m not a fan of advocating Velasquez to throw other pitches more just because that’s what the good guys are doing but it seems to make a tremendous amount of sense given the data available.
One way he might take a step forward is combining his efforts on his secondary options into one pitch. Chris Archer throws only three pitches and is one of the most electric guys in the league. Meanwhile, Velasquez threw five: a four-seamer, curveball, changeup, two-seamer, and slider. The last three combined accounted for 24.4% of his two strike pitches. Choosing one and rolling with it could calm him down as he’s deciding what to do when trying to put guys away. It might also enhance his fastball by making it less of a safety blanket and part of a more of a balanced attack. It really is really good – only Scherzer’s was better from the K/9 group here, and it was in the top 12 through all the majors in 2016.
Speaking of those qualified K/9 pitchers, they averaged nearly 32 starts and 194 innings pitched in 2016. Velasquez was hurt for a portion of last year, sure, but he took himself out of games early by running a lot of deep counts on a regular basis. Contemplating what the Phillies could do with an additional 60 innings or eight starts from him is fun. His walk and strikeout numbers place him almost squarely in the middle of some of the most effective pitchers in the game. How many more wins might he be worth? How much stress would he relieve from the bullpen? The impact could be huge.
Last week I acknowledged how baseball is paradoxically a game of doing what got you to The Show and tinkering enough to be able to stay. Velasquez hasn’t necessarily done either and he’s still on the doorstep of excellence. His fastball has always been great but we’re yet to see the reportedly plus-changeup on a regular basis (though it might be coming). He could be a small adjustment away from becoming a pitcher the opposition dreads instead of one they can wear down and remove before the sixth inning.