The Phillies ‘Velasquez Experiment’ gets off to a promising start

Phillies Cardinals Baseball
Philadelphia Phillies starting pitcher Vince Velasquez (21) walks off the field after being removed during the fifth inning of a baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Monday, May 6, 2019, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Last night the Phillies continued their six-game road trip against reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich and the Milwaukee Brewers. The high-scoring, back-and-forth affair produced ten total runs in what would go on to be a 6-4 victory for the Phils. Although the offensive eruption on display was certainly encouraging, it was the bullpen debut for right-hander Vince Velasquez that stole the show in my opinion.

While this wasn’t ​technically​ the first time we’ve seen Velasquez serve as a reliever, as he made a one-inning appearance earlier this season, this is the first time we’ve seen him come out of the bullpen since being stripped of his title as a starter. When speaking with the media, Velasquez was adamant that he fully intended on making his return to the starting rotation.

“I know there’s a lot of talk, but that’s my spot,” Velasquez said. “I believe that 100 percent.”

Unfortunately for the hard-throwing righty, Phils manager Gabe Kapler wasn’t as enthused about his chances of being the fifth starter.

“I don’t see it as a right,” manager Gabe Kapler said. “I see it as if it’s what’s best for the Phillies that he come back and rejoin the rotation, then he will. And if what’s best for the Phillies is for Jerad Eickhoff and Cole Irvin to continue to take down starts and utilize Vinny in some other fashion, that’s what we’ll do. We’ll always put the best interests of the organization first..”

It remains to be seen whether or not Velasquez will earn his role in the rotation back or be forced to get comfortable in a new role out of the ‘pen, but I’m leaning towards the latter. I’ve been very vocal about why I think making Velasquez a reliever​ makes perfect sense for the Phils for a number of years, and after his impressive bullpen debut against the Brewers, that sentiment has since grown.

Taking the mound in the bottom of the fifth inning with the score tied at 4-4, Velasquez didn’t catch much of a break to begin his new role. The California native faced none other than reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich and former NL MVP Ryan Braun to start the inning. Talk about sink or swim.

After walking Yelich, Braun subsequently laced a single up the gut in a hit-and-run, placing runners on first and third with no outs. Despite being in an incredibly strenuous situation and in danger of surrendering the lead, Velasquez remained incredibly cool under pressure.

The young righty recorded back-to-back punchouts, getting both Mike Moustakas and Yasmani Grandal on 97 mph heaters up and in on the hands, preventing either runner from advancing. This was exactly the type of bounce back the Phils needed at that moment and highlighted exactly what could make Velasquez such a valuable weapon out of the bullpen.

Batters simply can’t catch up to his fastball, especially after becoming acclimated to much slower versions of the pitch from the Phillies’ starters earlier in ballgames. Without the burden of having to manage his pitch count, Velasquez was able to cut loose and exhibit the velocity that got him to the majors to begin with.

After closing out the fifth without surrendering a run and recording a pair of strikeouts, it was more of the same for Velasquez in the sixth inning. The hard-throwing righty retired Brewers 1B Eric Thames on a groundout to lead off the inning before striking out the final two batters he faced on- you guessed it- fastballs up in the zone.

Though this was technically only a debut of sorts for Velasquez out of the ‘pen, the Phils have to be incredibly encouraged about his prospects of sticking and thriving in that role moving forward. Velasquez has always been a strikeout pitcher, but his inability to maintain a moderate pitch count was always going to hinder his effectiveness as a starter. As a reliever, however, Velasquez won’t have to concern himself with going deep in ball games and can focus squarely on retiring the side. Hopefully, this change in focus can lead to long-term success as a reliever.

Mandatory Photo Credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson