WARNING: Small sample size ahead!
Vincent Velasquez made his first major league appearance against the White Sox on Wednesday. While he didn't exactly twirl a gem, he struck out 5 in as many scoreless innings while working around 3 hits and 4 walks. I thought little of this start until I began querying Baseball Savant, looking for pitchers who were generating the greatest amount of spin on their four-seam fastball (FF).
|Player||FF > 3,000 RPM||Total FF|
Whoa! After just one start Velasquez already finds himself in the top ten pitchers with FF spinning delivered with more than 3,000 rotations per minute (RPM). That seems pretty impressive. Maybe even improbably. Just to be sure this wasn't a case of spurious data, or misconfigured PITCHf/x cameras, I check out his opposing starter, Jose Quintana. The Creep's FF spin rate lined up with his career average, so it seemed like Velasquez really was putting some elite spin on the baseball.
Take a closer look at the his FF from that night, and you'll see Velasquez's 89 pitches from his first start, which showed 65 that had been (auto)classified by MLB Advanced Media as FFs. Below, you'll see the how these pitches clustered by spin rate (RPM). You'll notice three outliers on the left hand side of the chart. Based on their spin direction/rate and velocity, these are probably hard change ups, but Harry Pavlidis I am not.
So Velasquez can spin it. But how much difference does that make? Well, the greater the backspin on a FF, the more it fights the forces of gravity. Look at the FanGraphs pitching leaderboads and you'll see that Velasquez has the most average "rise" to his FF (13.4 inches) of any pitcher to throw at least one this season (they call it a FA, if you're inclined to look). It's also greater than any pitcher last season. Or the season before that. You have to go back to 2011 to find a pitcher who has had more average rise to their fastball than Velasquez. That pitcher was Scott Kazmir, Los Angeles Angel of Aneheim who averaged 14.6 inches of rise on 15 FFs. Of course, this doesn't mean that no one has had a stretch of 61 FFs like Velasquez, but it should give you a sense of how special this pitch could be.
Now here's the really interesting part. Before his start, Velasquez had only one appearance recorded by PITCHf/x, and Eno Sarris took the opportunity to look at his repertoire, noting that, although Velasquez had little drop on his change up, the rising action of his FF (which was 10.4 inches in that start) helped to improve the pitch. Well, on Monday, Velasquez had his change up dropping (-3.5 inches) and his FF rising to even greater heights. So instead of a 5-inch difference in vertical movement between the two pitches, he sported nearly a 17-inch difference.
While this data is from just a single start, I'm inclined to believe that the Velasquez FF spin rates are the real deal. We know that the Astros' analytics team identified McHugh based on his elite curve ball spin rate, so the quick promotion of Velasquez to the majors based at least in part on his elite FF spin would make sense. I, for one, will be checking back in until I can confidently label him Vertiginous Vincent Velasquez.
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Matt Jackson is a featured writer for Beyond the Box Score and a staff writer for Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacksontaigu.