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.

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