Commentary

Why not let Vince Velasquez be Nolan Ryan?

April is no time to make giant leaps of judgment.

There are typically around 20 games in April, too small a sample for anyone, even the leadoff hitter who plays every inning of every game and, thus, accrues close to 100 plate appearances.

Nope, still too small.

Especially for the starting pitcher who throws 94 pitches in four innings of work.

However.

Vince Velasquez, as we know, can’t seem to cleanly pitch an inning. He’ll throw a bunch of strikes to a bunch of hitters, but those hitters then foul off a couple pitches, take a few wild attempts at a strikeout, then end up either on first base thanks to a walk, or back at home thanks to a home run because, at some point, Vinny has to groove one in there.

It’s exhausting to watch, even if the guy throws 10 strikeouts in four innings and flashes moments of pure dominance.

Standing among the thousands during the home opener at Citizens Bank Park, shivering and bobbing up and down as Velasquez unspooled pitch after pitch in a laborious attempt at being Nolan Ryan, I thought about the numerous pieces predicting a future late-inning bullpen job for the starter. If Velasquez’s 100 pitches only work over four innings, why not space out those innings to three or four games each week? Why not tell the kid to reel back and strike everyone out, formalities be damned?

But as Pete Mackanin double switched Velasquez out of the game in the fourth, another thought came over me, one that maybe we haven’t entertained, maybe because it seems ridiculous, since our understanding of pitchers’ roles has become so rigid.

Here’s the thought: What if, instead of restricting Velasquez and containing him to the bullpen, we stretch him out completely? What if the kid who clearly wants to be Nolan Ryan simply becomes Nolan Ryan? What if we toss out everything we know and let Velasquez throw 120, 130, 140 pitches each game?

What if Velasquez is the rare pitcher who needs to pitch more, the one who breaks our modern obsession with pitch counts and specialized bullpens?

Imagine a Velasquez told only to worry only about striking out batters, and that he doesn’t have just 90 or 100 pitches with which to work. He can throw 120, 130, 140. He can go as deep as his pitches take him. If he walks batters and works deep counts, whatever, keep going. If he feels good and is healthy, just keep going and strike out batters. Don’t groove anything in there. Go for the K every time.

David Price led the majors in batters faced last season: 951. He also led the majors in innings pitched – 230 – and games started – 35. In the last 10 years, only two pitchers have thrown to more than 1,000 batters in a season: Price (2014) and Felix Hernandez (2010). From 1972-78, Ryan averaged 1,177 batters faced per season (and that didn’t lead the majors).

He also averaged 170 walks per season (by far the most in baseball) and 313 strikeouts per season. His ERA? 3.01.

1977 was unbelievable. He walked 204 hitters in 299 innings and 37 starts. That’s 5.5 walks per start.

Ryan was a rare breed, even during the days when starters threw until their arms unspooled completely. He pitched deep into games, tossed an impossible number of strikeouts and treated walks like minor hurdles But he didn’t give up home runs (14 per season). Why? He didn’t give hitters anything; his aim was to strike out everyone, hell or high water.

In 2017 Velasquez is averaging 3.5 walks per start, a paltry number in comparison. His walk rate is slightly higher than Ryan’s in 1977 (7.0 to 6.1), but history says that rate will come down a little (Velasquez’s career walk rate is 3.4). Right now Velasquez K rate is 17 per nine, which is amazing but should come down, too. Good thing is Velasquez’s career rate is 10.4.

Ryan? His 1977 K rate was 10.3 per nine.

Here’s the deal: Velasquez may get hurt. He has a history (though the recent history isn’t serious). But as long as feels healthy and strong to keep pitching, why not keep him pitching? Why not push Vince as far as he can go. His strikeout stuff is a modern day comparison to Ryan’s. His approach is a modern day comparison to Ryan’s.

It’s April. But maybe it’s time we let Vince Velasquez be Nolan Ryan.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Keith Griggs

    April 16, 2017 at 10:57 pm

    I very rarely agree with Tim, but I agree here. Vinny is obviously never going to be the kind of pitcher that can handle contact. Throw out all this babying of pitches, and let the man throw. If it takes 140/150 pitches to get 7 innings…. so be it. We need to take the diapers off all of our pitchers. I think they look and see they’re close to 100 pitchers, and start to press or prepare to be replaced. Let the boys pitch! GO PHILLIES!

  2. Mitchell Nathanson

    April 17, 2017 at 9:01 am

    You’d have to get his agent on-board with that and you’d never be able to do that. Why would an agent agree to allow a ballclub burn out his client’s arm while still paying his client below-market wages? All the risk is on the pitcher’s side and all of the reward is on the club’s side. That’s hardly fair or right. By the way, this sort of thing happened all the time in the world before free-agency and player agents. We might look back on that time as something of a golden age but what gets lost is that there were innumerable pitchers who threw their arms out. I can mention Sandy Koufax but that misses the larger point that most of the guys who threw their arms out are guys whose names nobody knows because they came and went so quickly that they’re long forgotten. One guy whose name might be familiar to some is Jim Bouton. He became famous for other reasons but after a great 1963 season the Yankees pitched him as both a starter and reliever in 1964 and his arm was shot thereafter. His numbers were great in ’64 but by the time of the World Series he was complaining of a “dead arm.” He never recovered. There were too many guys like him back in the “good ole’ days.” Pitcher injuries will always be a fact of life but stupid pitcher injuries — like those that come from overuse — is at least one thing a ballclub can and should control. No matter how loudly fans howl.

    • Keystone

      April 17, 2017 at 10:42 am

      Velasquez’ agent doesn’t need to enter the picture until 2022.

    • Ken Bland

      April 17, 2017 at 10:48 am

      Boy, is that post right on. A check on Bouton’s career at baseball reference.com shows a rapid decline at age 25.

      Although I have no access to the exact ratio of old timers that burned out quckly, maybe it’s more to their credit that folks like Warren Spahn chugged along until age 42 and won 363 games. In the Bouton class, and closer to home, though barely remembered, would be Art Mahaffey. Like Vince, he racked up a memorable strikeout game, but after a 274 IP season a mere year later at age 24, his only half decent year before exiting the bigs at age 28 was in ’64 with the Phils, but that was inclusive of only 157 IP. Ironically, he was a real Mauch critic for the Bunning/Short dependency in ’64, but at least in reflection on his baseball card as a whole, there doesn’t seem much reason Mauch could have depended on him.

      I visited your website, and applaud your work. Recently, Philly.com ran a photo series on Schmidt that recalled his career and prompted comments. Several lauded him as the greatest Phillie ever, and best 3B in history. While those opinions are highly valid, I look back at those days differently. Rare is it that you get to see virtually back to back (save for the Don Money era) such greats back to back the same position. We knew watching Allen was very special, and then not long after we got to see Schmidt. I would think Schmidt feels blessed to be thought of by many people as so far ahead of Allen, if I’m not speaking for those many, but so it seems. Kind of ironic that Crash is still with the organization after all his peers are so long gone. Hope he makes the HOF, but not holding my precious breath. Great work, Mitchell. Keep it up!

  3. Simple fact

    April 17, 2017 at 10:36 am

    I don’t believe an Agent has much to say at this early in a career. I believe if VV was told he wasn’t on a pitch count and as long as he was still in control of the game the Phils would let him pitch, he’d be on board with it. I am extremely frustrated with the underuse of starters these days. Good lord, in the 1970’s Steve Carlton routinely had 20 Complete Games and 250+ innings and he wasn’t the only one. Can VV be a NR or SC, we’ll never know in today’s age over micromanaging and over reliance on BP. It’s said to see and makes the games almost unwatchable as RP’s are brought in batter after batter, slowing the game from a turtle to a snaol pace.

  4. Mike Fassano

    April 17, 2017 at 10:39 am

    I still believe that Velasquez will become a premier closer for the next ten years.

    • betasigmadeltashag

      April 17, 2017 at 2:04 pm

      not sure you can have a closer that does not throw strikes. I have to agree with the pitch count stuff. There are actually some studies that show the more your throw the better it is, especially when you throw mostly fastballs, a lot of injuries we have seen in the past 10 years with pitchers is throwing to many curve balls at a young age. I like the idea of letting VV throw as many pitches as it takes, 140-150 maybe extreme, but 115-125 per game is not unreasonable

  5. Mitchell Nathanson

    April 17, 2017 at 12:46 pm

    The agent is involved from day one. Don’t forget that the agent represents more than just this one player. He probably represents dozens (or if he doesn’t, he certainly aspires to and the ballclub knows it will have to deal with him in many different ways going forward). If the Phils stick it to Velasquez do you think they’d stand a good chance of landing any of this agent’s other clients?

    As for letting Velasquez be Nolan Ryan, that’s fantasy baseball to the extreme. Ryan was a unicorn — the only guy I’m aware of who was able to throw that hard for so many seasons without a significant injury. In fact he had what was believed to be a significant elbow injury towards the end of his career, I think, but he opted against Tommy John surgery (against medical advice) and then came back and pitched as if he’d never been injured at all. He’s just a freak of nature. You can’t compare him to anybody.

  6. bruce

    April 18, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    Geez! The writer dared to use the great Ryan Nolan’s name in the same sentence with a nobody named Velasquez. Pure baseball fantasy! Besides, the thought or suggestion for Velasquez throwing hard for 120, 130 or even 140 pitches each game is again, pure fantasy. In this day and age managers in general regard a strict pitch count as a predominant rule of baseball for protecting their pitchers from a disabling injury.

    May I remind folks here that Ryan Nolan had MORE than one pitch in his arsenal to set up his blazing fastball. It’s the same for modern day greats like Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax. They all had great command of their pitches when it counted.

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