vince velasquez

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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Countdown to Clearwater: 5 questions about Phillies pitchers

Countdown to Clearwater: 5 questions about Phillies pitchers

The Phillies open spring training in Clearwater, Florida next week. In preview, we take a look at five storylines:

Tuesday — Five new faces to watch 

Wednesday — Five questions on the position side 

Thursday — Five questions on the pitching side

Friday — Five prospects to watch

Saturday — Five people with something to prove

 Earl Weaver used to say the only thing that matters is what happens on that little hump out in the middle of the field. With that, we examine five pitching questions facing the Phillies as they head into camp:

Will they designate a closer?

With Seranthony Dominguez, Hector Neris and David Robertson, the Phillies have closer candidates, and it would not be a complete surprise to see someone take hold of the role as the season unfolds. But heading into camp, it seems as if the Phils will stay flexible, avoid hanging the label "closer" on any one guy, and play the matchup game in the late innings. That includes the ninth.

“We are likely to continue to use guys in a variety of roles late in the game,” general manager Matt Klentak said on the day he signed Robertson, who has three 30-plus save seasons in his career.

Nine different relievers recorded a save for the Phillies last season, led by Dominguez with 16. He certainly has the stuff to close, but he also has value as a kill shot when the game is on the line in the seventh or eighth inning. Neris had a few difficult months last season and ended up in the minors. But he was a beast after rediscovering his splitter and his confidence and struck out 35 of the 69 batters he faced over the final six weeks of the season.

Will Aaron Nola’s arbitration case cause problems?

Probably not. There were similar worries when Ryan Howard went to court over salary in 2008 and he ended up signing two long-term extensions with the club. Of course, he won his high profile, $10 million arbitration case after an MVP award and 105 homers and 285 RBIs the previous two seasons.

Nola's case will be heard on Feb. 14, the second day of official workouts, and he is expected to attend the hearing. The pitcher, eligible for salary arbitration for the first time, and his representatives are seeking $6.75 million. They will build their case around the pitcher’s third-place finish in the Cy Young voting last season. If that doesn’t convince the arbitration panel that he is worth the money, maybe these stats will: Nola finished fourth in the majors in ERA (2.37) and quality starts (25) and fifth in innings (212 1/3) and WHIP (0.97) in 2018.   

The Houston Astros paid Dallas Keuchel $7.25 million in his first arbitration year after he won the AL Cy Young in 2016 and Nola’s side sees that as a legitimate comparable. The Phillies’ offer of $4.5 million seems to be more in line with what Matt Harvey ($4.35 million) and Jacob deGrom ($4.05 million) got in their first year of arbitration.

This is business: A player looking to capitalize on a big year and a team trying to toe the industry line. It’s difficult to see there being a lot of fallout from a process that both sides understand so well. And, either way, the team is likely to explore a long-term extension with Nola in the near future and the pitcher would be very interested in that.

Are they done adding?

Clearly, the team thought it needed more starting pitching, hence the offers it made to lefty starters Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ, both of whom signed elsewhere. The Phils could still look to fill their lefty void by signing someone like Keuchel to a short-term deal. The team has also continually monitored the market for closer Craig Kimbrel. Even if the Phils don’t add another reliever, they may have to subtract from a crowded bullpen before the spring is over. Tommy Hunter has been shopped for a deal. The construction of this pitching staff will continue through July and you’ll hear the name Madison Bumgarner a lot if the Phils are within striking distance.

Whither Eick?

Jerad Eickhoff was the team’s best starting pitcher in 2016, but he’s been plagued by injury the last two seasons. Off-season surgery to address a condition similar to carpal tunnel syndrome has Eickhoff back on track and ready to challenge for a rotation spot.

Who will step forward?

Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta and Vince Velasquez are all talented and they’ve all racked up valuable experience the last couple of seasons. Much of this team’s success will ride on one or two of these guys becoming consistently successful behind Nola and Jake Arrieta.

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Phillies pitchers facing make-or-break seasons in 2019

Phillies pitchers facing make-or-break seasons in 2019

Interested in reading something Phillies-related that doesn't pertain to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado?

There are about 40 other players who could make an impact for the Phils in 2019 beyond the two superstars. And several of them are facing crucial, perhaps career-altering seasons.

In no particular order...

Vince Velasquez

It's definitely make-or-break time for Vinny Velo. In his three seasons with the Phillies, Velasquez has a 4.63 ERA and below-average rates of allowing walks and home runs.

The biggest source of frustration with Velasquez has been the high pitch counts and early exits. In his 69 starts as a Phillie, he has averaged 5.05 innings per start.

In 23 of those starts — so exactly one-third of the time — Velasquez hasn't been able to complete five innings. In 39 of the 69 starts, he hasn't completed six.

Velasquez will turn 27 the first week of June. He's no longer a very young starting pitcher with tons of unrealized potential. This is the year he needs to definitively show the Phillies he can go deeper into games and be more than a strikeout artist. 

Velasquez has struck out 381 batters in 350 innings as a Phillie, but this is an era when velocity and strikeouts are more common than ever before. He needs to take a step forward this season, and that step forward would involve getting closer to an average of six innings per start ... if he is indeed in the rotation to open the season.

It's also an important season for Nick Pivetta, but Pivetta is a bit farther along, has more weapons in his arsenal and commands more confidence from Phillies decision-makers.

Hector Neris

Phillies president Andy MacPhail said at the end of the season that the 2018 Phillies were the most inconsistent team he's ever been associated with. 

No player exemplified that in 2018 more than Neris, who had a 6.90 ERA from March 29 until being sent to the minors after his meltdown on June 29. Over those 33 appearances, Neris allowed 11 home runs in 30 innings and his opponents had a .981 OPS. He couldn't command his splitter, and his fastball was being launched with regularity.

Then Neris went down to the minors, regained confidence in the splitter, came back to the majors and was lights-out.

Over his final 20 appearances, Neris had a 2.04 ERA and .172 opponents' batting average. He struck out 35 of the 69 batters he faced.

This isn't a make-or-break season for Neris' MLB longevity but it could be for him as a trustworthy late-inning reliever. Relievers in high-leverage situations simply cannot allow as many home runs as Neris did this past season. So many mistakes cannot be left over the middle of the plate. 

The Phillies have a host of late-inning options next season — Seranthony Dominguez, David Robertson, Pat Neshek, Tommy Hunter, Victor Arano and Neris. If Neris can replicate that second-half success, it would do wonders for the Phillies' bullpen and could keep him in the mix in the years to come.

Neris turns 30 in June and has two years of arbitration eligibility remaining before he becomes a free agent after the 2021 season.

Jerad Eickhoff

Following a season lost to a nerve issue in his wrist/arm, Eickhoff is looking to reestablish himself as a capable major-league starter in 2019.

With the numbness and tingling gone from his right hand, the hope is that Eickhoff and that equalizing curveball can provide quality innings for the Phils. He sure did in 2015 and 2016, when he posted a 3.44 ERA and 1.14 WHIP in 41 starts. 

In those 41 starts, Eickhoff averaged 6.1 innings, struck out 7.8 batters per nine and walked just 2.0. Those are the stats of a low-end No. 2 starter or high-end No. 3. 

Which is exactly what the Phillies need.

Eickhoff's fastball has been a concern through the years. There isn't a ton of bite or movement to it, and at around 90 mph, it gets hammered when it catches too much of the strike zone. Seven times in Eickhoff's career, his fastball has averaged between 92.0 and 92.9 mph in a game. But it's happened just once in his last 47 outings. We will see if a healthier arm and more normal throwing schedule lead to increased velocity.

There is no convincing reason why Eickhoff, who turns 29 the first week of July, cannot be a more reliable starter for the Phillies than Velasquez or Zach Eflin. Eickhoff's curveball is every bit as effective as Velasquez's fastball or Eflin's sinker and probably more so.

He also has the intangible traits that organizations and teammates love — a bulldog mentality, a desire to work and a willingness to hold himself accountable. 

The Phillies need at least one young starter to step up in 2019, especially with how much the division has improved. Not just for five starts in April or a few starts in June, but for a stretch that lasts closer to two months.

Later in the week, we'll take a look at Phillies position players facing equally important 2019 seasons.

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