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One Big Question: Can Hector Velazquez continue to limit damage on balls in play?

Or was his success too fluky?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Oakland Athletics Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Hector Velazquez.

The Question: Will Hector Velazquez be able to repeat his low BABIPs from 2017?

The Red Sox are going to have to rely plenty on rotation depth this season. There are the obvious reasons for this and it’s the case for literally every team in the league. Injuries happen all over the diamond, but they happen particularly often on the mound. Teams generally need double digit starts throughout the year, or at least something close to it, because of injury and underperformance. The Red Sox seem particularly risky this year with David Price still having those elbow issues looming over him entering 2018 and both Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright battling knee issues. Beyond the injury risk, new pitching coach Dana LeVangie and Alex Cora appear to be serious about getting rest for their pitchers, and it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see them skip starts here and there and perhaps even game the 10-day disabled list like the Dodgers did a lot in 2017. Whatever the method by which they get there, you can bet on the Red Sox relying on at least a few arms beyond their top six in 2018.

MLB: Boston Red Sox-Media Day Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

There are a few names to look for in this group, of course, but one could very easily make the argument that Hector Velazquez is the most important player among the depth. This is true despite the fact that Brian Johnson may have a leg up in terms of making the Opening Day roster, as that’s only due to the latter being out of minor-league option years. Last year, though, Velazquez went from a virtual unknown to being a really solid option out of Triple-A for Boston in the second half. It’s not just last year to be excited about, either, as he had developed a nice reputation for himself in the Mexican League, and while there’s never any guarantee that kind of success will carry over Velazquez showed he had enough talent to make it work at the highest level. Given the question marks and the amount of rest expected to be given to Boston’s starters, they could really use a repeat performance from Velazquez.

Of course, when I say a repeat performance that clearly means that they don’t need him to take a step forward and become a star, but rather just be a solidly fine, average-at-best arm for the back of the rotation. If he’s being counted on to be more than that, something has gone very wrong or very, unexpectedly right. In 2018, Velazquez pitched to a 2.92 ERA over 24 23 major-league innings (three starts, five relief appearances) while also posting a 2.21 ERA over 102 Triple-A innings. Of course, while those ERA’s are nice and shiny, nothing about his peripherals were all the exciting. His 3.43 FIP in Pawtucket was solid thanks to good control, but his 4.55 FIP in Boston was, well, it came in a small sample size so let’s not get too carried away. The one theme that stood out for the righty all year, though, was his ability to consistently hold opponents to low batting averages on balls in play.

This was not just a matter of it happening over the course of a small-sample multi-stint run in the majors, either. Velazquez did hold opponents to a .258 BABIP with Boston, but he also held Triple-A hitters to a .251 mark. Obviously, the hitters in the minors being of a lesser quality played a role in that. It’s also worth noting that this was something Velazquez did consistently all year. He only had one calendar month in which he allowed a BABIP over .300 (.309 in July) and only one other with a BABIP over .237 (.296 in May).

Now, what these numbers mean is obviously a whole lot more complicated than just looking at it and saying it’s good or bad. We’re long past the point of looking at a BABIP and calling it pure luck, but that’s also an element we have to consider. Moving from that for a second, though, Velazquez does have some qualities that help explain the weak contact. For one thing, while he does not have dynamic swing-and-miss stuff, Velazquez does get good movement on his pitches, particularly moving downward. When things are working correctly, he’s a tough guy to square up. Furthermore, he showed an ability to command all of his pitches and throw any pitch at any time when he was at his best last year, and again even major-league hitters can struggle with that lack of predictability. Of course, with all of that being said, there’s probably a little luck involved here, too.

At the end of the day, Velazquez has some room to regress in BABIP while being the kind of pitcher the Red Sox need him to be. If he comes back and posts another sub-3.00 ERA, obviously no one will complain. If that number runs up close or a bit over 4.00, though, that can work. Hopefully, though, Velazquez will prove that a good chunk of that BABIP ability he showed off in 2017 was skill, and he can make up for some of that regression with improved command and/or stuff. He is coming off more rest this winter than he had last winter, so there’s at least room for optimism. Depth is a major key for the grind of a major-league season, and Velazquez is among the most important depth pieces for the 2018 Red Sox.