CLEARWATER, Fla. — The text messages flew into Vince Velasquez's phone throughout the winter as his new manager began to forge a relationship. They communicated "like buddies," the Phillies pitcher said of his messages with Gabe Kapler.
Last season was a strain for Velasquez as he navigated the most trying stretch of his career. The 25-year-old righthander who never seemed to lack confidence suddenly looked lost. Kapler understands that. He also knows of the potential Velasquez carries in his right arm. And the manager saw it as his job — with each text message he sent — to build his pitcher up.
"I think Vince needs to know how good he really is," Kapler said.
Velasquez reported to spring training full of confidence despite finishing with a 5.13 ERA in a 2017 season shortened by a blood clot in his right middle finger. He refined his pitching mechanics in the offseason under the guidance of pitching coach Rick Kranitz and changed his diet, learning to cook Mexican meals from recipes given to him by his mother. And, perhaps most important, he studied the game's mental side, the aspect that often seemed to trip him up.
"It was just one of those things where you have a mental breakdown," Velasquez said of last season. "Everyone has a struggle. Everyone hits that bump in the road. You have to learn to keep yourself calm. You have to find whatever it might be to stay in that right state of mind."
Last season was not easy for Velasquez, who said after one rough start that he felt like a "chicken without a head." But it is how Velasquez responded to those struggles that have impressed the Phillies. He reported to camp early with 10 pounds of muscle added to his listed size of 6-foot-3, 205 pounds. He aims to log 200 innings this season, more than double the amount he threw last season. Kapler said the pitcher is "incredibly focused."
"I think it's one of those big years," Velasquez said. "I have nothing but confidence."
The team's staff gathered last week on the back fields of the Carpenter Complex as Velasquez threw his first bullpen session of camp. He had not thrown off a mound since August. There was interest to see how he would look. Velasquez fired off fastballs and change-ups, stepped off the mound, and said he had "one of those feelings, like, 'Wow.' " Kapler said you could not "wipe the smile" off the pitcher's face. He looked confident again.
If Velasquez finds success this season, an anonymous throwing session watched by a handful of spectators will be the start of it.
"Just looking at him and watching his bullpen the other day, there is some intent there. There is no doubt about that," Kranitz said. "You always hope that when guys go home, they learn. They reflect and come back and they make adjustments. Just how he's carrying himself now and things he is saying. To me, that's all positive, which I'm translating to, 'Hey, this is beginnings of becoming a quality major-league pitcher.' He is taking that step forward. I'm looking forward to seeing him. I really am."
The manager's work to build up Velasquez did not stop once the text messages slowed when they arrived in Clearwater. The team's staff, Kapler said, will remind the pitcher of how good he can be. There is perhaps no arm in camp with the electricity that Velasquez has. When he makes a good pitch, Kapler said it is the team's job to "show him how good it is." The Phillies need Velasquez to keep his confidence.