How Should You Value Vincent Velasquez?
Saying that Vincent Velasquez has had a nice start to the season may be the understatement of the year. His first start of the season raised expectations, and his second start blew them through the roof. It’s hard to describe just how filthy Velasquez was on Thursday against the San Diego Padres, but the fact that Velasquez is only the seventh pitcher to strikeout 16 batters without a walk is a good way to put the game into perspective. The 23-year old gave up just three hits and no walks in his complete game shutout, which could already be baseball’s best outing of 2016. Unsurprisingly, Velasquez’s hype has exploded with the tremendous start to the season.
As this very scientific graph shows, the excitement surrounding Velasquez is incredibly high. It’s easy to buy into the hype, but that doesn’t always mean it’s the smart move. Maybe the hype is warranted, but it’s smart to first take a step back and evaluate the player independent of his hype-creating performance(s). So as much as I want to talk about Velesquez’s historic outing, it’s more useful to put it aside for the time being.
Velasquez has always been an exciting prospect, but never received high rankings on prospect lists; the only time he was a top-100 prospect was 2015, ranked 75th by Baseball and 86th by Baseball America. This placement seems low considering Velasquez has never had a full minor league season with an ERA above 3.54 and a K/9 under 10.1, but the lack of fanfare was partially warranted. The former second-round pick struggled with command in the minor leagues and has never thrown more than 124.2 innings in a season. The low innings are a result of injuries, which were another contributor to his depressed prospect status. Velasquez suffered a stress fracture and ligament strain in his elbow during high school, Tommy John surgery a season after being drafted, and a groin injury that kept him out for a couple months in 2014.
The injury history and command questions caused a number of evaluators to view him as an eventual bullpen piece, and this risk still remains. In fact, of the 55.2 innings he spent last season with the Astros, 17.2 were as a reliever. The durability questions are very real, but the command issues may be overblown. Velasquez’s 3.40 BB/9 from 2015 was far from ideal, but Velasquez had thrown just 33 innings above A-Ball (all in Double-A) before being promoted to the big leagues. You can’t exactly praise Velasquez’s 4.37 ERA and walk rate last season, but his lack of experience in the high minors excuse his walks some.
Although Velasquez has been a divisive player among scouts, there is one thing that can be agreed upon—he has loads of talent. To paint of a picture of his raw stuff, let’s finally talk about Thursday’s start. Velasquez got off to a quick start, striking out the side in the first inning. The unique part of this frame is how Velasquez did it–every pitch he threw was a fastball. This trend continued throughout the came, as he netted a remarkable 20 whiffs on the four-seamer that averaged 95.5 mph. A good sign for Velasquez was how well he held velocity throughout the game: his final four fastballs of the game came in at 97, 97, 95, and 96 mph. Just like on Thursday, Velasquez leaned on the heater heavily last season, using is at a league-high 68.4% of the time. This habit risks Velasquez becoming too one-dimensional and could backfire, but he has enough repertoire depth to correct this problem. In terms of off speed stuff, Velasquez offers a tantalizing mix of a curveball, slider, and changeup.
If you’re interested in buying stock in Velasquez after Thursday’s start (and who could blame you), just make sure you’re not blinded by his last outing. There’s a lot to love about Velasquez, but there’s also a good chance his last start will be the best of his career. One reason for his success was the opponent, as the Padres offense is likely the weakest Velasquez will face all season. So far in 2016 the Padres have scored just five runs (over seven games) in ballparks not named Coors Field, and unfortunately the two clubs face each other just once more this season. It’s also important to keep in mind that Velasquez won’t get many wins in Philadelphia, he may not be pitching in September due to an innings limit, and he’s an injury risk. Although expectations are best tempered, Velasquez is undoubtedly an electric arm. His walks should largely be offset by strikeouts, and runs may be hard to come by for opposing teams. A league adjustment may be coming against Velasquez, but he has the pitches and talent to persevere and have an exciting second season in the big leagues. He probably won’t strikeout 16 batters each game, but considering Velasquez a top-50 starting pitcher in single-season leagues (and much more in dynasty formats) makes sense.