Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Hector Velázquez.
2019 in One Sentence
Hector Velázquez couldn’t stay on that tightrope he’d been walking in the first two years of his career, with the lack of stuff catching up and his ERA inflating above 5.00.
We typically talk about versatility in terms of position players, with players like Brock Holt and Ben Zobrist as guys who can play all over the diamond and just generally make life easier for managers. It’s not thought of as much in terms of pitchers since there’s really only two roles one can fill: Starter or reliever. It’s easier said than done bouncing between those two roles, though, and finding a couple of guys who can do just that can often be a key for a successful season. In 2019, Velázquez wasn’t necessarily successful bouncing around, but he did it. That is half the battle. We’re stretching a bit here for positives, but that is what happens sometimes. He did make eight starts to go along with his 26 relief appearances.
We also saw an increase in strikeout rate for Velázquez this past year. One could actually argue this worked against him, but if you isolate strikeout rate it was a better year for the righty. After striking out just 14 percent of his opponents in 2018, he upped his rate to just a shade under 20 percent this past year. He paired the strikeout rate with with a substantial increase in swinging strike rate (18 percent to 24 percent, per Baseball Prospectus) with decreases of at least five percentage points in contact rate on pitches in and out of the zone. Again, when we look at the overall numbers we could conclude the strikeouts were not wholly beneficial, but missing bats is important in the modern game and Velázquez did just that.
Looking at his repertoire, the slider may have emerged as a pitch Velázquez should be leaning on more often. He only threw the breaking ball 17 percent of the time in 2019 and you never know how an increased usage will alter the effectiveness of an individual offering, but the pitch was effective last year. He got whiffs on just about a third of swings he induced with the pitch and when batters made contact they produced an expected wOBA of just .218 and an actual wOBA of .170.
So, yeah, while there were a few bright spots on the year for Velázquez it was pretty much all bad while it was happening. By the time the season was over he had tossed 56 1⁄3 innings over 34 appearances (eight starts) and finished the year with a 5.43 ERA, a 4.77 FIP and a 6.56 DRA. He was only slightly worse than average by FIP (mostly due to the strikeouts) but was 13 percent worse than average by ERA and a whopping 35 percent worse by DRA.
As far as the reasons why this season was so much worse (results-wise, at least) than his first two years in the majors, you have to start with the control. Velázquez has never had big stuff, but he’s always been able to limit damage by not allowing free passes at will. He hadn’t been an elite control artist or anything, but with walk rates sitting around seven percent he was easily better than average. In 2019, though, his zone rate cratered to 45.5 percent and with it his overall walk rate jumped up to 11.4 percent. After being that consistent above-average walk-preventer, Velázquez was suddenly in the bottom 11 percent of the league.
To make matters even worse, he also started allowing much more damaging contact. As I said, he doesn’t have the stuff to rely on that to get by, so he needs to limit walks and he also needs to make sure the balls in play he allows just aren’t that damaging. That wasn’t the case in 2019. In his first two years he was an average to better-than-average ground ball producer, but in 2019 his ground ball rate fell all the way down to 38.6 percent (per FanGraphs), putting him in the bottom third of the league. It should go without saying with the juiced ball of 2019, allowing balls in the air is asking for trouble. Velázquez saw his home run rate jump up to above one per nine innings (it was 0.7 per nine in 2018) and he allowed a .319 batting average on balls in play. It’s just not how a pitcher like Velázquez is going have success.
There’s a lot of other directions we can go to outline this disappointing year, but I think the most telling thing is what pitches worked and what didn’t. I mentioned the slider above, and his four-seam fastball was also a solid offering, too. Those were his two least-used pitches, and a fastball/slider combination is just not the kind of pitcher Velázquez is. Instead, he’s the kind of guy who wants to keep hitters off-balance, which is why he most often uses his slider and changeup. In 2019, though, those pitches just didn’t work. His changeup produced an expected wOBA of .374 and an actual wOBA of .337 along with a whiff rate of just 23 percent (a career-low). His sinker, meanwhile, produced marks of .410, .4410 and 11 percent.
The Big Question
*Shakes Magic 8 Ball* “Outlook is not good.”
Velázquez has a decent shot at sticking around into the regular season next year just for the simple reason that he has minor-league options remaining. With the Red Sox needing as much depth as possible, particularly for those who can start games in a pinch, Velázquez has an inside track. That said, the leash is going to be very short and if things start to go bad early he will be on the chopping block.