Felipe Vazquez hasn’t looked like the same guy this year, and that’s not just a bad joke about the fact that he changed his name at the beginning of the 2018 season.
Relievers almost always work in small sample sizes, so the fact his ERA was 3.86 entering Wednesday and WHIP is 1.29 compared to last year’s figures of 1.67 and 0.89 shouldn’t immediately be cause for panic.
But there’s also a bit of missing velocity that suggests he hasn’t quite had his best stuff so far in 2018. Vazquez averaged 96.7 MPH on his fastball in a small sample in March before settling in at 97.6 MPH in both April and so far in May.
As you can see below, the trend of starting out slow velocity-wise and increasing throughout the year isn’t anything new to Vazquez, but there’s definitely something missing there.
Vazquez blew his first save of the season Sunday against the San Diego Padres, though it was the second time he entered the game with a lead and was unable to maintain it after losing a four-run lead on Opening Day in Detroit. He also blew a save on Wednesday night against the Cincinnati Reds, though he wasn’t charged with a run as he was unable to escape the jam he inherited from Michael Feliz in the eighth inning.
“It happens,” he said. “Just move forward, come back strong and keep winning games. … I think the first day (in Detroit) I was still getting back to myself and (Sunday) was just kind of a rough day.”
Relievers are volatile and inconsistent in general, and even though Vazquez has been one of the better ones throughout the last year and a half, it’s probably unfair to expect him to be immune.
So, is the downtick in velocity and results a concern? Digging a bit deeper into the numbers, his BABIP is .321 compared to .234 a year ago, but his hard contact is actually down to 20.8 percent from 26.6 percent.
It seems that at least some of Vazquez’s downturn in outcomes is due to some poor luck, and that’s why his 1.99 FIP has been much more forgiving — and actually feels that he’s been better this year than last, when he had a 2.47 FIP.
His walk rate and strikeout rate are both trending just a hair downward from 2017 and his overall career numbers as well.
Vazquez was keen to explain how the small samples of being a reliever can be exaggerated by pitching a high leverage situation when there’s never going to be a situation where someone more talented comes in at the first sign of trouble.
“With closers, you feel good for a few days, and then one day you don’t feel good and they’re all over you,” he said.
There’s certainly enough evidence to say that Vasquez hasn’t been the same pitcher he was a year ago, but it doesn’t look like there’s anything to panic over there, either.
An interesting change in the dynamic might be the Pirates’ decision to go with Feliz instead of George Kontos in the eighth inning. Twice in Vazquez’s last seven appearances, he came in for 1.2 innings because Kontos had gotten himself into trouble. The move to Feliz should have come with less load on Vazquez, but it didn’t play out that way on Wednesday.
Vazquez is on pace to throw about 67 innings this season, fewer than the last two years, when he cross the 70-inning barrier both seasons. It’s possible that the consecutive years of high innings have caught up with him a bit. It’s also possible that the Pirates penchant for some losing streaks — they’ve had losing streaks of four or more games three times this season — may have prevented him from staying fresh.
Either way, it’s far too early to write off Vazquez’s turn in fortunes as anything other than a blip at this point, but it is something to monitor as the season progresses.