PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. - Vince Velasquez jumped ahead of the first batter he faced Wednesday afternoon, Steven Souza Jr., and he had an idea. This spring, assured of a rotation job, Velasquez wants to find faith in his curveball.
It was not a good pitch in 2016, to the point where Velasquez could not trust it. A.J. Ellis, the veteran catcher who was with the Phillies at the end of last season, told Velasquez he needed conviction in all of his pitches.
How could someone like Velasquez, blessed with a prized right arm, lack conviction?
"I don't know," Velasquez said. "I have my bread-and-butter fastball and change-up. I just have some type of hesitation with curveballs. I'm afraid of leaving it up. I'm afraid of burying it, bouncing it in the dirt. If I can establish location on that pitch right now I'm not going to have any doubts during the season. All of those fears, all those doubts, it's best to get them out now."
But Velasquez, in the first inning of Wednesday's 5-5 Grapefruit League tie, wanted the curveball. He threw it to Souza, who whiffed. The rest of Velasquez's outing - two scoreless innings with one hit allowed on an 0-2 count - was uneventful.
"If I can get strikes with my curveball," Velasquez said, "I won't have to worry about throwing a lot of extra pitches."
That is the next step in maturation of a 24-year-old pitcher who, at times during his first season with the Phillies, looked more like a thrower. He could not pitch deep into games because opposing hitters often spit on his offspeed offerings and worked long counts. The fastball is a weapon, but less so when Velasquez cannot fool hitters with the rest of his arsenal.
Opponents hit .297 with a robust .581 slugging percentage against Velasquez's curveball last season, according to Major League Baseball's Statcast. The numbers against his change-up were even worse; a .379 batting average and .603 slugging percentage.
"I think he has the capacity mentally to make adjustments," Phillies manager Pete Mackanin said, "and learn from his mistakes."
Aaron Nola has not competitively pitched for more than seven months, and that adds a little intrigue to his spring debut Thursday against Toronto in Dunedin, Fla.
"I'm very eager to see Nola," Mackanin said. "Well, I was eager to see Velasquez and now I'm more eager to see Nola. I know he feels 100 percent. Let's see what he looks like. I think he's going to be fine. The key for him will be when we get into June, July and August, if he's going to hold up. That's the only concern I have. Not that I don't think he will, but that's the only thing in the back of my mind. I don't foresee issues early."