Velasquez's dominant slider lifts Bucs to 2nd straight sweep

April 23rd, 2023

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates’ pitching group embraces a willingness to unabashedly lean into what works and eschew what doesn’t; if a pitch is effective, it will be thrown frequently. There is no shortage of pitchers who are dramatically upping the quantity of their most effective offering, and Vince Velasquez is among them.

Velasquez put together what was easily the most dominant start of his tenure in Pittsburgh as the Pirates defeated the Reds, 2-0, on Sunday at PNC Park to sweep the four-game series and record their seventh consecutive win.

Tossing seven scoreless innings with a season-high 10 strikeouts, Velasquez extended his personal stretch of quality starts to three, the first time he’s done so in half a decade. And with some of the alterations he’s made to his repertoire, more afternoons like this could be in store down the road.

“He was outstanding,” Bucs manager Derek Shelton said. “That's about as good as you can be.”

Velasquez kept his formula simple: attack with the slider and four-seam fastball and sprinkle in a spattering of changeups to keep opposing hitters honest. The slider, in particular, had the Reds in a daze as Velasquez generated a career-high 10 whiffs with the breaking ball. Of Velasquez’s 10 strikeouts, nine were with the slider.

“Velasquez is a bit different,” Reds manager David Bell said. “A really good slider today, Velasquez had. He sets that up with his fastball. He had it all working.”

Similar to rotation mate Roansy Contreras, Velasquez is leaning into his slider like never before. Last season, Velasquez threw his slider a career-high 22.6 percent of the time. This season, by comparison, Velasquez is throwing his slider 39.3 percent of the time. On Sunday, Velasquez threw 49 sliders to 41 four-seam fastballs, marking back-to-back starts in which he has thrown more sliders than heaters.

Considering the slider’s effectiveness, Velasquez is willing to lean into the pitch. Entering Sunday, Velasquez’s slider had a Run Value of -4 (Contreras’ slider has a Run Value of -5) with an opponent batting average of .179. Come Monday morning, Velasquez’s slider might be even more valuable once this afternoon’s outing is added to the equation.

“Once you execute, you start messing around with it, start going backdoors, backfoot," Velasquez said. "It feels great to have that confidence and utilize it [at] any count. All the work I’ve been putting in to develop this trust and this confidence in this pitch, I don’t see why not that I can use it 50% of the time.”

The only inning on Sunday in which Velasquez looked truly out of sync was the third. After retiring Jason Vosler to begin the inning, Velasquez walked Jose Barreo on four pitches, then Luke Maile on five pitches. He managed to escape the inning unscathed, getting Jonathan India to fly out, and then TJ Friedl grounded into an inning-ending forceout. From there, Velasquez only allowed two baserunners to reach for the remainder of the game on a pair of harmless singles.

Velasquez’s afternoon appeared to be over when he exited the sixth inning having thrown 90 pitches, but Shelton provided Velasquez with an opportunity to complete the seventh. Shelton said that Velasquez looked strong and finished strong, retiring the side in order and recording his ninth and 10th strikeouts of the afternoon along the way.

“I thought his stuff was in a good spot that he could go out and execute, and he did,” Shelton said.

“I want to go as deep as I possibly can,” Velasquez said. “It’s nice to establish that trust and to continue building on that confidence. It’s also comforting too when the manager sits back and relaxes. You give the bullpen and everyone else kind of a day off, then you let [Colin Holderman] and [David] Bednar come into the game to close it out.”

Velasquez endured a rocky start to his time in Pittsburgh, allowing eight runs across 7 1/3 innings in his first two starts. In his past three starts, by contrast, Velasquez has allowed just three runs across 19 innings with 23 strikeouts to seven walks. Velasquez is finding stability with the Pirates after a tumultuous year with the White Sox in ’22, but the right-hander knows there’s still more to be done. 

“The hard work doesn't stop,” Velasquez said. “I think it's more of just a continuation, going back to the drawing board and seeing how I can get better. I think this is a year where I feel like I've made a lot of progress, I've established a lot of confidence in my secondary stuff.”