Vince Velasquez Could Be Baseball's Next Elite Pitcher
Following a trade from Houston to the lighter-hitting National League East, many were cautiously optimistic that Vincent Velasquez would realize some of the potential that made him one of the Astros' top prospects.
In his debut with the Phillies, the 23-year-old put up an impressive line, tossing six shutout innings against the Mets, while racking up nine strikeouts. It was enough to get people excited, but it was just one start. The jury was still out on just how good this talented young pitcher could be.
Then this happened.
Velasquez threw a complete game shutout yesterday against San Diego with 16 strikeouts, 3 hits, and no walks. His performance came out to a game score of 97, which will be one of the best games we see this season. There were just seven games with a higher score in 2015, led by Max Scherzer's 17-strikeout no-hitter that registered a 104 game score.
Velasquez's performance also made him the youngest pitcher to strikeout at least 16 in a game since Mark Prior did so in 2003.
His 23 strikeouts through his first two games with the Phillies is a new franchise record. The previous record was 20, which was held by Hall-of-Famer Jim Bunning.
It was an amazing performance -- one that may end up being the best of Velasquez's career. But one terrific start doesn't turn a prospect into an ace. Let's take a closer look at Velasquez's arsenal and see just how good the talented young right-hander can be.
Velasquez possesses a four-pitch arsenal highlighted by an overpowering fastball that has been the most effective pitch in the Majors so far this season. Below is a location chart showing Velasquez's fastball location in 2016.
As you can see, Velasquez is generating a lot of whiffs with his fastball. Velasquez recorded a ridiculous 20 swings and misses on his fastball in his last start. To put that in perspective, that ties the high mark for anyone in the PITCHf/x era:
- Vincent Velasquez, 4/14/16, 20 fastball swinging strikes
- Max Scherzer, 10/3/15, 20
- Matt Harvey, 4/3/13, 20
- David Price, 7/7/10, 20
— David Schoenfield (@dschoenfield) April 14, 2016
He has the stuff to get hitters to chase, but he doesn't need to use it to get ahead, because of his overpowering fastball. He uses it to get ahead in the count, and then can mow hitters down using his filthy off-speed stuff. His fastball has helped him post a 77.8 percent first-pitch strike rate in 2016, after putting up a 61.5 percent last season.
Max Scherzer led the league in first-pitch strike rate last year, getting ahead in the count 71.3 percent of the time. Scherzer, who just happens to be the only other active pitcher with a 16 strikeout, zero walk, complete game shutout to his name, is someone Velasquez is being compared to a lot early on this season -- especially for his heater.
"There's riding life in the zone with his fastball," Padres manager Andy Green said. "It was explosive, reminds me of when I saw Scherzer going as well as he goes, and that fastball is literally exploding through the zone."
He also is becoming more and more confident in the fastball, throwing it in the zone more often, as evidenced by his location chart above. In 2016, Velasquez has thrown 58 percent of his pitches in the strike-zone after throwing 48.3 percent in the zone last season.
Velasquez's velocity is right in line with last year's numbers, too, tying Scherzer for 14th in the Majors with an average 94.2 mph fastball so far. It's even more impressive that he's matching his velocity from last year this early in the season when you consider that he pitched over half of his games out of the bullpen last season.
Speaking of velocity, Velasquez reached 96 miles per hour on his last pitch, the 113th of the day. He has clearly built up his arm strength since last season and has not only one of the best fastballs in the game, but the stamina to keep a live arm late into games.
Velasquez also has a nice changeup that drops off about eight miles per hour from the 94.2 mph that he pumps his fastball in at. He mixed in a slider pretty effectively last year, but he hasn't thrown it much through his first two starts. What has been easily his most impressive off-speed pitch, though, is his curveball.
The 2016 version of Velasquez's curveball is absolutely disgusting and should have hitters everywhere terrified. Last season, just one percent of Velasquez’s pitches dropped at least eight inches according to PITCHf/x. This season, he’s at 17 percent, and a big part of that has been due to his curveball, which drops off the grid like it's Ron Swanson. Two excellent examples of his devastating curveball can be found in his 16-strikeout performance in the video above at the eleven second mark.
Velasquez feels much more confident in his curveball, too, which is evidenced by the fact that he has thrown it 25.5 percent of the time, as opposed to 18.6 percent of the time last year. Combining his overpowering fastball with a top-notch curveball just seems unfair.
Everything about Velasquez's statistics point towards an improved pitcher. Yes, it has only been two starts. Yes, one of them was against the Padres. This is a former prospect with unbelievable stuff who posted a 25.1 percent strikeout rate last year, though. It's not as if he came out of nowhere.
If you take these two starts and combine them with the 55.2 innings he tossed last year, here is Velasquez's line: 3.22 SIERA, 1.13 WHIP, 29.1 percent strikeout rate, 11.7 percent swinging strike rate, and an 8.4 percent walk rate. His ground-ball rate of 31.8 percent and fly-ball rate of 46.6 percent are a bit concerning, and could lead to the occasional implosion, but plenty of great pitchers have gotten away with high fly-ball rates. Several elite pitchers posted a fly-ball rate of over 35 percent last year, but the only one who posted one as high as Velasquez was -- you guessed it -- Max Scherzer, who had a 45.4 percent fly-ball rate.
Is Velasquez the next Max Scherzer? Maybe, but probably not this season. Is he going to maintain a 0.00 ERA, 0.60 WHIP, and 46.3 percent strikeout rate? Once again, probably not. He's still young and relatively inexperienced, so don't expect him to become a Cy Young candidate overnight. There will be some bumps along the road.
The numbers point towards him having the capability to be an elite pitcher, though, and we have known he has the stuff to be one for years. He's one of the most exciting young pitchers in the game right now, and is gaining more confidence in his pitches by the day. If you're a fantasy baseball player in one of the 35.6 percent of ESPN leagues in which he is still somehow available, pick him up now.
If you're just a fan of the game, sit back and enjoy the show.