CLEARWATER, Fla. — Vince Velasquez lit up the room like he lights up radar guns Wednesday morning. He talked enthusiastically about how good his arm feels, about how he has come into Phillies camp with a new mentality after last season’s struggles. He mentioned that his musical tastes include The Temptations. He talked about eating healthier this winter, learning “a few little Mexican recipes” from his mom and cooking for himself.
The 25-year-old pitcher sounded a lot like he’d spent the winter worshipping at Gabe Kapler’s altar of positive energy.
In a way, he had.
“We communicated a lot,” Velasquez said of his new manager. “Like we were buddies. Like, ‘What’s up, how are you doing, how’s your day going?’"
Mind you, Velasquez spent the winter in Southern California and Kapler in Philadelphia.
But Kapler made a point to keep in touch with his players via text.
“It was frequent,” Velasquez said. “Not every manager would hit you up on a regular basis to check in on you and see how you were doing. A little small talk like that can give you that little boost.”
Now that camp is open, Kapler is doing his communicating face to face. He bounces from the field to the clubhouse to the weight room as if he's on an imaginary pogo stick.
Velasquez remains impressed.
“It’s amazing how one person or just one human being can change your ways by creating a different vibe,” Velasquez said. “I love it. It’s amazing how much he brings to the clubhouse and just how live it is right now. This is the first day and we’re already bumping music. We have a whole different approach going into spring training and that’s something that enlightens us and gives us something to look forward to. It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be a really interesting year, a really fun year.”
Last year was not fun for Velasquez. For the second straight season, he failed to harness the electricity in his powerful right arm. He struggled to pitch through the middle innings. And he had health issues. A blood clot in his pitching arm ended his season in early August. He is healthy now — and firing. Kapler gushed about seeing Vinny Velo throw in the bullpen on Tuesday.
“Velasquez stands out to me as a guy who looks incredibly healthy and strong,” Kapler said. “The stuff was coming out with electricity. He was commanding his pitches. His presence was strong.”
Having so much down time last season forced Velasquez to take stock of himself as a pitcher. He said he reflected on the times when he would struggle and how those struggles would cause him to lose focus. He believes he will look back at those struggles as growth experiences.
“Injuries don’t really help as far as doing what you need to do to get back out there, but they do help you learn from standing on the sidelines and looking from the outside in,” he said.
He added that he has learned techniques to slow the game down when things are going haywire. For example, he said he now can back off the mound and sing a song to himself. Something from The Temptations.
“I’m old school,” he said with a laugh.
Velasquez came to the Phillies in December 2015 as the centerpiece of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade. Ken Giles went to Houston in that deal and helped the Astros win the World Series in October.
The Phillies banked on the potential of a power arm when they acquired Velasquez. He showed that potential when he struck out 16 San Diego Padres in April 2016. Big things were expected from Velasquez last season, but he sputtered. He made just 15 starts and averaged less than five innings. His ERA was 5.13. His walk rate jumped to 4.3 per nine innings from 3.1 in 2016 and his strikeouts slipped to 8.5 per nine from 10.4.
The combination of Velasquez’s power stuff and his inconsistencies has led to almost constant speculation that he could end up in the bullpen someday. He might be an excellent one-inning guy someday, maybe even a closer. But that conversion is not in the current plan. Starting pitching is valuable and the Phillies, for now, remain committed to developing a starter. Velasquez is happy about that, but he knows this is a big year in proving himself.
“It is,” he said. “But I know what I'm capable of. I feel like I can really fulfill this spot and do what I like to do and that's be a starter. I have nothing but confidence.”
Despite averaging under six innings per outing last season, Velasquez has set a high personal bar for the coming season.
“Two-hundred innings,” he said. “I’m really excited. I don’t have the exact words to put it into play, but I’m really looking forward to having a bounce back year.”