When Bryce Harper mashed a 422-foot, walk-off homer off Joaquin Benoit on Sunday afternoon, struggling starter Vince Velasquez took one step closer to the back of the Phillies’ bullpen.
At least, he should have. If the Phillies are building for tomorrow, then they should make “Vinny Velo” their closer today.
This issue has little to do with Benoit, the Phillies’ new and ageless closer. He is 39 with the arm of a man 20 years younger – that is, live, but unpredictable.
It wasn’t so much the 97-mph meatball Harper hit to dead centerfield that should give the Phillies pause as Benoit’s five-pitch walk of Chris Heisey with the bases empty and one out in the ninth. Those five pitches went strike-ball-ball-ball-ball … to a player with a career .300 on-base percentage and 106 walks in 1,686 plate appearances. After a single and a flyout, Benoit jumped ahead of Harper 0-2, threw three no-chance balls, then served one down the chute.
Benoit does not matter. He’s AARP window dressing for a franchise focused on post-millennial prospects. Deposed closer Jeanmar Gomez, 29, doesn’t matter much, either. Since his glorious, 5-month run in 2016, he is 1-4 with three blown saves in five chances and has a 16.20 ERA, thanks mainly to hitters’ .536 batting average against him.
Against this backdrop, in this moment, the Phillies could sell Velasquez, 24, as a possible savior to the fans, the team and Velasquez himself. “Vinny Velo” (for velocity) could be The Next Big Wild Thing.
Lately, Velasquez has done little to build equity as a starter.
Since late July, he’s 0-6 with a 6.46 ERA. The Phillies shut him down in early September, so he has pitched just 54 1/3 innings since that time, and the number the team loves is his 71 strikeouts in that span. The club isn’t quite as thrilled with the 14 homers he allowed, opponents’ .297 batting average and his 1.602 walks and hits per innings pitched (WHIP).
He has lost both his starts this season. Send him to the ’pen now and it isn’t punishment; it’s a new possibility.
Velasquez’s fastball averages 94 mph as a starter so it should jump into the 96-97 range as a bullpen piece. These days, pitchers make more money for throwing balls at the beginning of games than at the end, but combination of a power fastball and a nasty changeup has made a lot of closers a lot of money for a long time.
Besides, it might behoove Velasquez to help the bullpen for a change. He certainly does it enough hurt. He has pitched past the sixth inning just three times in his 26 starts since the beginning of the 2016. He pitched four innings in his first start this season, five in the second.
Unfortunately, baseball generally accepts change at a glacial pace. Teams often endure months of poor results before they act. If Benoit coughs up another lead or two, the closer’s job won’t go to Velasquez; rather, it might fall to setup man Hector Neris, 27. In the Phillies’ minds, Velasquez is a starter.
When they acquired him in the 2015 trade that sent closer Ken Giles to Houston, they hoped he would anchor the middle of their rotation for the next seven or eight years. Given his inconsistencies and his worrisome injury history, that hope seems more far-fetched than the hope that he can become a door-slammer.
Even if the Phillies immediately recognize the simple brilliance of this suggestion, its implementation might have to wait a few weeks. There is no feasible immediate replacement for Velasquez in the rotation. A recent injury to Clay Buchholz forced the Phillies to promote Zach Eflin, who will start Tuesday against the Mets in New York. Jake Thompson, Option B, has been awful at triple-A.
Velasquez will make his start Wednesday in Queens and probably a few more beyond that. Any glimmer of proficiency will bewitch the Phillies for months, the way they were enchanted a year ago when, in his second start, Velasquez shut out the Padres and struck out 16.
This elegant solution is predicated on the assumption that Velasquez will continue to pitch as if he’s got dinner reservations. He might settle down. Maybe he won’t try to throw it 200 mph the next time he gets into trouble. Maybe he’ll become less predictable, less emotional, more efficient. Maybe he’ll pitch to contact and not try to strike out every batter.
Some pitchers with big arms learn to do that. Most don’t.
They wind up in the bullpen, sooner or later.