I was getting ready to write another Five Stars today, based on last night’s solid action, but got hung up by the “again” in the tweet below:
It’s safe to say, I think, that Nelson Velazquez has been the most common name mentioned in Five Stars this year. He is the system leader in a bevy of offensive categories, and I think comfortably has the title of Most Present Power among Cubs offensive prospects. After back-to-back three hit nights, Velazquez is now hitting .306/.353/.559, with a 140 wRC+ that is good for eighth in the High-A Central, and tied with Brennen Davis for tops in the Cubs’ farm system.
For fun, Velazquez’s .306 average, 11 homers, and 37 RBI all lead the Cubs’ farm system. He’s winning the system Triple Crown as of this moment!
This demands greater dissection.
Velazquez, 22, was the Cubs fifth-round pick in 2017 out of Puerto Rico. Baseball America called him “a physical specimen and shows plus raw tools.” The power would show quickly, as Velazquez entered the system with eight home runs in 32 games in the AZL. Back then, the hope was Velazquez turning into a five-tool player, but as he aged in the Cubs system, an increase in physical strength came at the cost of some of the run tool.
It seemed like a questionable trade-off in 2019, when Velazquez seemed a bit of a tweener in South Bend: raw power was producing only doubles to the gap and he seemed a less viable option in center field. But Velazquez hit the lost 2020 season hard, adding a bit more fluidity and staying in good baseball shape. And what a difference its made, literally across the board.
The headline in Velazquez’ game in 2021 is the graduation from Raw to Game Power. Right now it’s almost entirely the pull variety, and Velazquez is certainly one to cheat on a fastball. Here’s four home runs over three tweets, but in the third you’ll see the hint of maybe some all-fields power in his future:
Nelson Velazquez with a no doubter off a hanger. pic.twitter.com/5a9RaLqvYr
— Itsacon (@thats_so_cub) June 25, 2021
Nelson Velazquez is now tied for 8th in the league with 6 homers after this 💣 in last night's 7-5 win. pic.twitter.com/DDZWMzKmoL
— South Bend Cubs (@SBCubs) June 9, 2021
The last video offers a really nice side angle of the Velazquez swing. He starts with a relaxed open stance, and uses that front foot as a timing mechanism. Then he drops his hands, gets the bat on plane and utilizes his hips and thighs really well to generate power. It’s not a huge swing, but there is some violence to it, and I think a high strikeout rate can probably be blamed on getting a little too into his front side occasionally.
It’s the power hitting dilemma, right? Velazquez does such a nice job of getting that early contact point to create good pull-side launch angles, but when into his front side too early, he’s at risk on those good, tunneled breaking balls. The strikeout rate is at 32.4%, though that’s after trending down, with just 10 strikeouts in his last 50 plate appearances. I think the Cubs know that there will be some struggles up the ladder against more advanced pitching, and I think the next promotion to Double-A will be done carefully. A lot of the success is the result of a .410 BABIP that is higher than you’d generally expect from a guy with these batted ball numbers: 51.8% fly balls, 32.7% ground balls, 15.5% line drives.
HOWEVA, like South Bend broadcaster Max Thoma said to me yesterday, Velazquez is basically barreling everything these days. I’d guess he has the highest average exit velocity in the system this year. That’s gonna help the BABIP in a big way.
Last 20 games for Nelson Velazquez. Really locked in. pic.twitter.com/LUQPweF4Qh
— Brad (@ballskwok) July 8, 2021
The other good news is that Velazquez has been really solid in the field. He has six outfield assists in just 41 games with one of the best three outfield arms in the system. The Cubs are starting him in center about a quarter of the time, and it’s noteworthy that last night he made two run-saving catches pretty deep into each gap. I do think right field is the ultimate home, however, but it’s one that he has plenty of tools to succeed in.
This weekend, Velazquez will cross the 50-game and 200-PA barriers, and I think we can safely say that a breakout has happened here. Yes, the BABIP will come down and the lack of walks will catch up to him, and I think that plate discipline still holds him back from being in consideration for a top 15 guy in the system. But he’s entered the discussion for that next group, which represents a big step forward, and he’s done it providing an answer to one of the system’s most significant weaknesses.
(Plus, it sounds like he might be going by Nelly now, which I think bumps up his prospect ranking at least a few spots, and informed the headline up there.)