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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Timing getting better for Bryce Harper, who strokes two singles

Timing getting better for Bryce Harper, who strokes two singles

CLEARWATER, Fla. — While most of his teammates traveled to Florida's east coast for a game against the St. Louis Cardinals on Monday, Bryce Harper stayed back in Pinellas County and got some extra at-bats in a minor-league game at Carpenter Complex.

Harper, who had gone hitless in his first eight official at-bats of the spring, batted four times and stroked his first two singles of the spring in a game against a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. Both were hard-hit balls to the right side of the diamond.

One day earlier, Harper joked about going hitless in his first five games with the Phils. After his first hit Monday, he playfully called back to the dugout to see if someone could retrieve the ball as a souvenir.

Harper also grounded out and struck out in the minor-league game. He played four innings in right field.

Catcher J.T. Realmuto and reliever David Robertson also appeared in the minor-league game.

Hitting coach John Mallee liked the way Harper swung the bat.

"His timing is getting better and he's starting to put the ball on the barrel more," Mallee said.

Harper will continue his defensive work on Tuesday. He will also track pitches in the bullpen. That can be valuable for a hitter trying to get his eyes ready for the season.

Harper is expected to start in right field when the Phillies host the Detroit Tigers in Clearwater on Wednesday.

On the road, the Phillies lost, 4-1, to the Cardinals in Jupiter, Fla. 

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Gabe Kapler says players could have been more engaged during Phillies' 2018 collapse

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Gabe Kapler says players could have been more engaged during Phillies' 2018 collapse

CLEARWATER, Fla. — As the Phillies limped to the finish line with 20 losses in the final 28 games last season, some players basically checked out.

"I think in September our players could have been more engaged," manager Gabe Kapler confirmed to reporters in Jupiter, Fla., on Monday. "With the players I thought could have been more engaged, those conversations were had. I addressed every situation that clearly needed to be addressed last year in appropriate settings."

Kapler spoke in response to an ESPN story that told of how Carlos Santana smashed a television at Citizens Bank Park after seeing a couple of teammates playing a video game during a ballgame against the Atlanta Braves on the final weekend of the season.

Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta did not deny that some team members played video games in the clubhouse last season. He added that he did not believe video games were played during games.

Kapler said he was unaware of any of his players playing video games while the baseball game was in progress — "That's unacceptable, 100 percent," he said — but he did not deny that Santana trashed some equipment in the video room.

"In the middle of the summer, the chemistry of the clubhouse was very good," said Kapler, whose club was in first place in the NL East in early August. "As we struggled at the end, understandably, tensions ran high. When that happens, players tend to react. 

"Carlos became frustrated as happens in high-tension situations. He responded by smashing up some TVs. I don't think that's uncommon. I don't think it's uncommon to see players get frustrated in high-tension situations. That happens in every clubhouse environment. "

Kapler said he spoke personally with Santana after the incident and addressed the team in a meeting. The manager opened spring training last month by saying he planned on having more clubhouse boundaries in his second season.

"We are putting steps in place to ensure that when tensions run high again, players communicate and look out for each other," Kapler said. "I care deeply about our clubhouse culture and we are collectively doing everything we can to continue to monitor these situations, and to improve that."

On Monday, Rhys Hoskins defended his manager and said the incident involving the video games and Santana's reaction was not a poor reflection on Kapler's leadership.

What does Kapler think?

"When things aren't going the way that they should, it is always my responsibility to step up and be accountable for those things," Kapler said. "And I will do that in this situation as well."

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