When I look back at Nelson Velázquez’s numbers during his stint up in Chicago this year, I can’t say the final line surprises me much. He showed the pop that raised his profile during the 2021 season, he took enough walks to keep pitchers honest, but the problems we saw coming in making contact weighed his batting line down.
For a 23-year-old rookie season, especially for a guy who spent so little time at Triple-A, I can’t say a .205/.286/.373/87 wRC+ line itself changes my opinion of Nelson Velázquez, or is even all that different than what I might have forecasted.
However, as I looked under the hood of Velázquez’s numbers this week, there’s one split that I never would have guessed from watching him in the minor leagues: a .281 wOBA against fastballs. While good off-speed gave Velázquez troubles as he rose up the ladder, it always seemed like he could turn around fastballs (even good ones).
But, Nelson’s struggles are a good reminder that the most difficult jump between levels is the final one, and that Major League fastballs don’t just offer elite velocity, but also elite characteristics across the board. Velázquez had a run value of -1.8 runs per 100 four seam fastballs — 69th worst in MLB among players with 25 PA outcomes against the pitch — with the 17th highest Whiff% against the pitch. He also struggled to -2.4 runs per 100 sinkers — 25th worst in MLB — with a mere .265 slugging percentage against the pitch.
Obviously, if these numbers were to continue, it would be difficult for Velázquez to ever be a productive Major League hitter. It’s essential in modern baseball for hitters to succeed against fastballs.
But I’m not so quick to believe this is his true level of production moving forward. First, we’ll want to point out the bad luck involved: while Velázquez had a .281 wOBA against heaters, his xwOBA was at a healthy .352. His .247 BABIP against fastballs was a good 54 points worse than the league average, which certainly shouldn’t be the case for someone that hits the ball as hard as he does.
Second, and most importantly in my remaining Velázquez optimism: I believe in player development. And in Velázquez’s case, I believe a targeted approach on one specific thing will go a long way. If I were the Cubs hitting team, my focus would be entirely on providing Nelson with minor swing changes to enhance his ability to hit the inside pitch.
Let’s look at Velázquez’ spray chart on pitches on the inner third at over 90 mph. For context, his .134 wOBA on these pitches was the 19th worst among right-handed hitters that saw 500 total pitches in 2022.
I actually think the image is really helpful in showing us why Nelson’s .320 xwOBA on these outcomes is so much better than his actual results. We see a lot of deep fly balls — a successful outcome in the vacuum of batted ball quality — but unfortunately, the majority are outs to the deepest part of the field.
I want to compare this to Patrick Wisdom’s spray chart on the same pitches. Wisdom had a .389 wOBA on these pitches, and it’ll jump out to you why:
Home runs to left field do wonders for your numbers, huh? This is the obvious big difference between Patrick and Nelson — Patrick is a dead pull hitter on inside pitches, while Nelson was generally beat late, resulting in inside-out fly balls to deep right-center.
Watch video of this Velazquez fly out, from September 16 against the Rockies. Even contrast it with this grand slam Wisdom hit — on the same pitch type in the same zone — over the summer. It made me think of the Kris Bryant interview with Alex Rodriguez from years ago, where Bryant mentions the thigh-high inside pitch as his favorite, because if he catches it out in front, he’s doing damage. When I see that Velázquez fly out, I see how late he’s catching that ball, and moreso, how late the operation is to get going. The relationship between his hips and his hands comes ever so slightly out of whack.
I’ll leave it to the hitting experts to suggest how Velázquez can accomplish this goal, whether it be simplifying his load, steepening his plane to avoid barrel dumping, or altering his hitting posture. But I think encouraging Velázquez to pull the ball more — his 43.3% rate in the bigs was lower than it was at any minor league level — and giving him the tools to accomplish that against fastballs is essential for Major League success.
As said earlier, it’s possible he never gets there. Or it’s possible he ends up just a soft-side platoon bat, as his brief Major League sample showed more discipline, contact ability and power against southpaws. But, I don’t think it makes sense as a value proposition to give up on him now. The 2023 season should start with Nelly in Iowa, where he’ll have ample opportunity to work on the development plan the Cubs lay out for him. Let’s see if it makes him a fastball hitter again.