Featured image courtesy of Zimbio.com: (July 9, 2018 – Source: Adam Glanzman/Getty Images North America)
Ian Kinsler is expected to be activated at some point today. When this inevitably happens, the Boston Red Sox will have to make a tough roster decision. One of the more likely scenarios is that Hector Velazquez, with his sparkling 2.77 ERA in over 60 innings, will be sent down to Pawtucket for two weeks. Of course, on September 1st rosters will expand to 40 and this won’t be an issue.
For the time being, however, Velazquez is one of the only bullpen pieces with a minor league option. This is not a foregone conclusion by any means but it seems to be a big possibility. The idea that this may potentially happen got me thinking about the Red Sox right-handed reliever/spot starter.
Obviously, he’s been a pleasant surprise this season out of the bullpen, which is a role he’s seldom played in his pro baseball career. Of course, he’s also been really good at not allowing many runs to score. As a pitcher, that’s a terrific thing! The way he’s found success, however, has been a tad unconventional.
His 5.25 K/9 (strikeout per nine innings) is the sixth-lowest among all pitchers with at least 50 innings of work. For context, there are 243 pitchers in this sample and the league average for all pitchers is an 8.46 K/9. Consequently, his FIP (fielding independent pitching) sits at a mediocre 4.07 while his xFIP, which normalizes a pitcher’s HR rate to the league average, is 4.62.
A quick glance at those more predictive numbers may paint a less rosy picture of the 29 year old. He has pretty good command with a 2.48 BB/9 (walks per nine innings) but he’s no Nathan Eovaldi when it comes to limiting free passes. Velazquez has relied heavily on garnering weak(ish) contact, so the fielders behind him play a large role.
This is not necessarily a bad thing but it is a lot easier when a pitcher can take some outs into his own hands. Balls put in play are inherently more volatile, meaning his results should be more fluid than other pitchers. Still, that has not stopped him and it is not even like this has been just a bunch of good luck.
His BABIP against him is .313, which is above the league average. If anything, he may be getting ever so slightly unlucky on balls put in play. Again, it is so marginal that it would not affect much but it should help ease an onlooker’s concerns about the sustainability of his performance.
Moreover, his xwOBA against (.339) is very closely aligned with his actual wOBA against (.322). For those unaware, xwOBA is basically how a pitcher is expected to give up runs based on the quality of contact he allows and strikeout and walk numbers. This is probably the most telling and comforting statistic.
Throughout his baseball career, Velazquez has been a groundball fiend and this year is no different. He is in the 75th percentile among pitchers with at least 50 innnings in GB% at 48.8 percent. Groundballs are usually indicative of weaker contact, hence, why this matters. His sinker/two-seamer (59.74 GB/BIP) and splitter (60.00 GB/BIP) have been the heaviest groundball inducers for the six-pitch pitcher, per Brooks Baseball.
* Note: Baseball Savant classifies him as a five-pitch pitcher, not six. His splitter has been developed this year (according to Brooks Baseball) but Baseball Savant does not classify it as a splitter. It has very similar velocity to his slider, so it is possible he does not possess a “true splitter.” Instead, he may have a slider that looks like a splitter.
Meanwhile, the former Mexican League pitcher has been particularly skilled at not allowing hard contact. In fact, his Hard% of 28.6 percent over at Fangraphs is the 25th lowest among 243 pitchers with at least 50 innings. This is a big reason why his xwOBA is close to his actual wOBA. He does not allow a lot of smoked baseballs that do a bunch of damage.
To reiterate, Hector Velazquez’s pitching-to-contact style makes him more susceptible to ERA inconsistency going forward. Make no mistake, though, he has been better than his FIP says this season. Most likely, he will never be a reliable late-inning reliever or a solid mid/back of the rotation starter. For what he is, however, there is a good chance he can carve out a nice career as a long man. The dude knows how to make sure his pitches don’t get hit to outer space. There’s value to that.