Vince Velasquez's 2019 priorities, thoughts on how Phillies' rotation is perceived

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Vince Velasquez's 2019 priorities, thoughts on how Phillies' rotation is perceived

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Phillies have shown a lot of confidence in their starting rotation over the last six months, standing pat after missing out on Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ and looking ready to roll into the regular season with the same five guys who accounted for 150 of their 162 starts in 2018.

Dallas Keuchel is still out there but is unlikely to be a Phillie unless his market totally dries up and he is willing to accept a short-term deal at a surprisingly low number. 

You'll recall that last season, the Phillies' starting rotation was their strength in the first third of the season. From opening day through the end of May, Phillies starting pitchers had a combined 3.31 ERA, fifth-best in the majors. They were in the top-8 in baseball in strikeout rate, walk rate, home run rate and WHIP.

Things fell apart late in the season. Performances were uneven from Vince Velasquez, Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Jake Arrieta. 

All of the 2019 projections and predictions are meaningless. Folks can be optimistic about the Phillies' starting rotation or question whether they have enough pitching — it's all just chatter until we see where this group stands after six weeks or so. Even then, it will be tough to form a concrete opinion given the ebbs and flows of 2018. When will the sample size be large enough to believe Velasquez, Eflin or Pivetta have truly turned a corner?

Monday afternoon against the Rays, Velasquez had the kind of start he's had frequently as a Phillie — swings-and-misses, early wildness, a high pitch count, some untimely hard contact. He ended up throwing 43 pitches in two innings, striking out four and allowing four well-struck balls that led to five runs.

Velasquez knows that the perception, locally and nationally, is that the Phillies' offense should be potent and the defense improved, but the starting pitching is a question mark.

"I don't think we're focusing on what the word is out there," he said. "I have a job to do and that's to continue pitching and being a strong pitcher that I'm capable of being. I know what we have as far as [guys returning]. We were dominant for the first half. ...

"I don't really foresee any changes in the rotation as of now. I just know that we're full-on confident with what we have."

Velasquez has made 69 starts as a Phillie. Among them, 24 could be classified as very good starts. In 23 other starts, he failed to complete five innings. It would be redundant to say there hasn't been enough consistency. The organization knows it, the fans know it, he knows it. 

One thing you can never question is Velasquez's dedication to his craft and willingness to assess himself honestly. He never hides after a bad outing. He never makes excuses. He's accountable. That's not always the case with young pitchers, especially in a pressure-cooker environment like Philadelphia.

This season, he will face pressure unlike any he has experienced in his previous three seasons as a Phillie. That's just a byproduct of playing for a team with high expectations.

"We try to put it all together with Vinny," manager Gabe Kapler said. "We want him to establish the four-seam fastball, we want him to establish it up in the zone, we want him to get ahead. You saw as he eased into the game, the 95s, the 96s flash. We want to see that from jump."

When you miss a lot of bats and lose command of the strike zone, especially early in counts, you're going to throw a lot of pitches. Velasquez, as a Phillie, has averaged 17.0 pitches per inning. The average in both leagues over that span is 16.6. When you put it like that, it doesn't seem so bad, but Velasquez did rank in the bottom 10 of the NL in pitches per inning in all three seasons.

How does he find outs earlier in counts? How does he take his, at times, overpowering arsenal deeper into games? There's not one answer, but ...

"Him showing ultimate confidence in his stuff," Kapler said. "And that means on a 2-0 count, I'm throwing you a fastball even if the last one got hit for a double. Later, when I'm in an 0-2 count, I don't need to be perfect and work a 3-2 count to punch you out. I can throw you a couple fastballs and while you're defensive and in that 0-2 count, you might swing and miss a little bit earlier."

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The first look at the 'new' Phillie Phanatic

The first look at the 'new' Phillie Phanatic

Things have ground to a halt in Philadelphia in the 48 hours since Jim Salisbury reported the Phillie Phanatic was set for a makeover of sorts. 

There’s been anger, there’s been sadness, agony, but more than anything else a sense of confusion in the city. Not confusion why. That’s all explained here. It’s been more of a philosophical why. “Why is this happening to me and to those I hold dear?”

The changes, though, aren't too significant. If you're a die-hard, you'll probably notice several of the differences, but all fans will still recognize our jolly ol' fella from the Galapagos Islands.

The first look at the “new” Phanatic will be this afternoon when the Phillies host the Pirates at 1 p.m. on NBC Sports Philadelphia ...

... but here’s a preview. 

My guy straight up pelvic thrust his way into weight redistribution. Forever a scientific marvel.

The snout is smaller and a bit of a different shape. The tail is longer with a different color at the end. New shoes and socks. New scales(?) on the arms. And it looks like he’s seeing a new optometrist.

There are definite springtime vibes in Philly, across Florida and Arizona and in each of the major-league cities. Baseball is back and in a few short hours, we’ll get the crack of the bat and the big green guy's usual hijinks.

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Will more changeups equal more fun for Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta in 2020?

Will more changeups equal more fun for Phillies pitcher Nick Pivetta in 2020?

LAKELAND, Fla. — Nick Pivetta says it doesn’t matter what role he pitches in this season, that he just wants to have fun playing baseball — that’s something that was missing last season — and help the Phillies win games.
But deep down inside, Pivetta desires another chance to pitch in the starting rotation. That’s why he spent his off-season working on his changeup.
“Every day,” he said. 
“I need a fourth pitch to make this starting rotation,” he added. “For me to take my next step, that's the pitch I'm going to have to have.”
Pivetta made his spring debut in the Phillies’ exhibition opener Saturday against the Detroit Tigers. In two innings of work, he threw 35 pitches. Seven of them were changeups. He will continue to work on the pitch all spring as he competes for the fifth starter’s job against Vince Velasquez and dark horse candidate Ranger Suarez.
Pivetta is 18-28 with a 5.42 ERA in 71 starts for the Phillies over the last three seasons. The clock is ticking on the 27-year-old right-hander. It’s time for him to turn some of his huge potential into consistent performance. The Phillies thought they were going to get that from Pivetta last year. They awarded him with the second start of the season, but he was sent to the minors just a few weeks later. He eventually made it back to the majors and bounced between the rotation and the bullpen. Along the way, he butted heads with manager Gabe Kapler and struggled to adapt to some of the philosophies of pitching coach Chris Young. Baseball wasn’t much fun. It never is when you have a 5.38 ERA.
It’s a clean slate for Pivetta now. Joe Girardi is in as manager. Bryan Price is in as pitching coach. Pivetta is upbeat.
“I just want to have fun playing baseball,” he said after his outing Saturday. The Phillies and Tigers played to an 8-8 tie on a chilly Florida day.
Using a more compact delivery and shorter arm action — he said he’s simply trying to be “more efficient” — Pivetta enjoyed a 1-2-3 first inning with his fastball reaching 96 mph. He allowed two doubles, two singles and two runs in the second inning. Two of the hits were soft.
Girardi has said the competition for the fifth job won’t begin in earnest until the pitchers have made a couple of starts and broken in their spikes. But Girardi liked what he saw of Pivetta his first time out.
“His velocity was good,” Girardi said. “He used his fastball down in the zone and up in the zone well. I thought his curveball had bite to it. His slider was pretty consistent. He threw some changeups. I thought his tempo was great. To me, you can really build off that. I don’t necessarily look at the early numbers, right? He didn’t walk people. He was ahead in the count. You start doing that and your location gets better as you get more innings under your belt and you’ve got something.”
Girardi had watched a lot of video of Pivetta. He liked the more compact delivery.
“I think his fastball is going to get on people, especially as he starts to use his off-speed more," Girardi said.
Girardi also liked what he saw of Pivetta’s spring project, the changeup.
“I think it’s a weapon for him that he needs to learn how to use to right-handers and left-handers,” the manager said. “I think he’ll continue to develop it. We’ve got time to develop it down here and we’ll see how it goes.”
Pivetta lost confidence in his changeup last season and threw it just 1.2 percent of the time. When he landed in the bullpen, he threw mostly just fastballs and curveballs.
So far in camp, pitchers have raved about their dealings with Price, whose style is to have pitchers work to their strengths. 
Pivetta recalled his first conversation with Price this winter. The two spoke about the importance of improving the pitcher’s changeup.
“With Price, when I first talked to him on the phone, something that really clicked with me was just making sure the pitch is down in the zone,” Pivetta said. “Just make sure it's down. Let the pitch do its work.
“Bryan is really, really good. I've really enjoyed Bryan. He has a lot of really good knowledge. I look forward to continuing to get to know him more on a personal level and really dive into the knowledge he has. He has such a vast and long history in major league baseball.”
The Phils host Pittsburgh in Clearwater on Sunday. Aaron Nola will start. Velasquez will get the ball Monday against Baltimore.

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