Vince Velasquez, looking to earn one more shot in the Phillies’ starting rotation, might have taken a step in that direction in an intrasquad game Tuesday night.
The right-hander was impressive in four unstructured innings of work. (We call it unstructured because he faced an extra batter in some innings to get his pitch count up.) He gave up two hits and a walk and did not allow a run. He struck out six.
Velasquez, who turned 28 in June, apparently did not just put his feet up and wait for baseball to return during the shutdown.
He spent time adding a cutter and improving his changeup. He used both pitches effectively in Tuesday night’s outing. He still has that power fastball and a breaking ball. A deeper, more consistent mix might allow him to finally unlock the tantalizing potential he has shown since arriving in the organization as part of general manager Matt Klentak’s first big trade in December 2015.
“I thought his cutter was good,” manager Joe Girardi said. “It’s been a good pitch for him. It’s allowed him to use both sides of the plate.”
Velasquez has had two strong outings in intrasquad action over the last week. He is battling Nick Pivetta for the final spot in the rotation. The runner-up in the competition will start the season in the bullpen.
After Tuesday night’s intrasquad game, Girardi was asked if Velasquez has moved into the lead in No. 5 starter’s derby.
“He’s looked really good his last two outings,” Girardi said. “I don’t think you can ignore what he’s doing.”
Velasquez went 7-8 with a 4.90 ERA in 33 games, 23 of which were starts, last season. Inconsistency and the inability to get into the middle innings with a reasonable pitch count led a move to the bullpen. Eventually, a need arose in the rotation and Velasquez found himself back there. That’s where he wants to stay, but time may be running out. The Phils have Spencer Howard on the way and in a short, 60-game season can’t afford to give Velasquez a long leash if he continues to be inconsistent.
It’s time to cash in on that potential.
A change in pitching coach might help Velasquez. Bryan Price believes in moving the ball up and down in the strike zone. The previous regime, trying to capitalize on Velasquez’ power, stressed pitching up in the zone.
Last week, catcher J.T. Realmuto spoke optimistically about Velasquez. Realmuto sensed that Velasquez was doing more “pitching” than “throwing.”
There is a difference.
“He worked on a new pitch during the quarantine, mixing in a cutter now, and he’s using his changeup a lot more than he has in the past, so just the pitchability from him,” Realmuto said. “I was talking with Bryan Price about it. We’re not going to be so one-dimensional with him. We’re going to move the ball around the plate, pitch up and down, mix the changeup in, mix that cutter in. He’s always had that curveball. He’s looked really good. I expect big things from him.”
We’ve heard that before about Velasquez. The clock is ticking. Maybe this is the year something clicks. The Phillies certainly won’t complain if it is.
While Velasquez is trying to win a spot in the rotation, Zack Wheeler’s spot is safe. He faced 19 hitters and did not allow a run in the intrasquad game. He is in line to start the second game of the season — family life permitting. Wheeler is due to become a dad in the next couple of weeks and that real-life event will sideline him for at least a start, maybe two. This is why guys like Velasquez, Pivetta, Cole Irvin and others are having their innings stretched out. There may be starter’s innings available even after the fifth starter’s job is settled.