Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Hector Velázquez.
The Question: Can Hector Velázquez keep performing despite his stuff?
Besides the battle behind the plate, by far the most interesting question regarding the makeup of the Red Sox’ Opening Day roster is how they will sort out the end of their bullpen. Assuming they stick with the six-man rotation to start the year, five of the six relief spots are probably locked down. Matt Barnes, Ryan Brasier, Tyler Thornburg, Heath Hembree and Brandon Workman all have spots barring injury. The sixth starter spot, meanwhile, is almost certainly Brian Johnson’s, and he’ll likely shift back to the bullpen when they revert back to a normal five-man rotation. That last spot, though, could go to just about anyone. They have options for long relievers, lefties or normal right-handed relievers. You could make an argument for any of them, though that’s not as positive as it sounds. No one is standing out.
Among the candidates, and perhaps the favorite heading into camp, is Hector Velázquez. The righty would seemingly have a leg up on the rest of the competition for the simple fact that he stuck on the major-league roster for all of last year. It’s rare to see someone pull off that feat — particularly on a team as successful as the 2018 Red Sox — and then have them be optioned for the following season. It’s not impossible, but it isn’t done often. That being said, if it happens to anyone, Velázquez seems to fit the profile of someone to whom it would happen, largely due to a lack of upside.
The righty’s history with the Red Sox truly is a fascinating one, as he sort of came out of nowhere back in 2017. He was signed out of the Mexican League, a place that doesn’t produce a ton of major-league talent, and spent most of that first year down in Triple-A. He’d eventually get the call in the majors, though, and after a September call-up that year he wouldn’t see the minors again through the following year. In that time, Velázquez has done nothing put up results. Heading into 2019 he has 109 2⁄3 innings under his belt and he’s pitched to a 3.12 ERA in that span. That’s really good! In fact, by ERA+, it’s a whopping 42 percent better than average. How can you leave that guy off the Opening Day roster?!
Well, that really isn’t a hard question to answer unless you only have access to that ERA. Just by watching him, most would probably be able to spot that he is not as talented as the run prevention leads one to believe. The stuff for Velázquez simply doesn’t stand out (only 11 of the 183 pitchers with at least 1250 pitches in 2018 missed bats at a lower rate), and it’s hard to believe he can have this much success in tis era of growing strikeout rates. On top of that, he doesn’t have bad control but it’s not like he pairs his substandard stuff with impeccable control. He’s simply been around average in that area. Put all of that together and he’s been much worse by peripherals than results, with a career FIP of 4.26 and a career DRA of 5.44. In other words, the more advanced metrics point to a serious downturn coming for Velázquez with major changes.
There are, of course, instances of pitchers that outperform their peripherals for extended periods of time. It’s very hard to do, but it’s not impossible. For Velázquez, the key is basically to take what he’s been doing and continue it, possibly to greater extremes. He has proven difficult to square up in his career, allowing a low batting average on balls in play in 2017 and then a lack of home runs in 2018. To pull that off, he has to stay around the edges. With his stuff, his pitches can be mashed if they catch too much of the zone.
Because of that, he leans most heavily on his sinker and his splitter. Both of these pitches unsurprisingly lead to a ton of ground balls, and he finished last year with a ground ball rate of exactly 50 percent (per Baseball Prospectus). Obviously that helped keeping his home run rate down. More generally, both of those pitches have good movement and when used correctly break down below the strike zone. His stuff isn’t overpowering enough to get whiffs, but he can get chases on those difficult-to-hit pitches. In 2018 among the same 183 pitchers mentioned above, he was in the top-third of the league in inducing swings on pitches out of the zone. Velázquez played into that strategy last year, too, dropping his zone rate from 52 percent in 2017 to 48 percent in 2018.
Ideally, the righty will be able to maintain that trend this year and still find success while hitting the zone even less. If his sinker and splitter can be as deceiving as they’ve been in the past, it can work. Batters make adjustments, of course, but there’s only so much that can be done about laying off pitches below the strike zone. That being said, pitching out of the zone is a huge risk. That can easily backfire and lead to more walks. With more walks come more baserunners, which in turn leads to situations where Velázquez has to throw strikes. That is where he can start to get hit hard all over the field. It’s a fine line to walk.
That, in essence, is the issue for the righty. His entire game is built upon a skillset that walks the finest of lines. There is no doubt in my mind that he’s had some luck involved in the results he’s posted to this point, but he does deserve some credit for it as well. He gets the swings on pitches out of the zone and he’s gotten out of jams of his own making, too. That said, at some point someone with his stuff is going to cross over the fine line, and he doesn’t have the stuff to make up for it. If he crosses the line, it could get very ugly very quickly. Given his results over the last couple years, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he got another chance to overperform to start the 2019 season. The hope would be that, if he can’t keep the magic going, that the Red Sox will be willing to utilize a short leash.