Pittsburgh Pirates: Debating if These Early Season Successes are Sustainable
By Noah Wright
Pirate fans were rightfully skeptical of Vince Velasquez when the team signed him to a one-year deal. The last time Velasquez posted an ERA+ of 100 or greater was back in 2016. Since then, he has only ever once posted an ERA+ over 90, with 2019 coming in at 91. However, Velasquez has been an extremely pleasant surprise for the Pirates so far this year.
In 32.1 innings, the right-hander has a 3.09 ERA, 3.80 FIP, and 1.18 WHIP. Velasquez has a strikeout rate of 23.4%, with a walk rate clocking in at 8.8%. Home runs have consistently been an issue for Velasquez in the past, but he currently has a very solid 0.84 HR/9 rate. Velasquez only has a 29.7% ground ball rate, but has made up for it with what has so far been a career-best 87.1 MPH exit velocity (top 75th percentile).
So what’s changed, and could those changes make Velasquez’s start sustainable? The first thing is that Velasquez has been using his slider nearly as often as his four-seamer. His 42.9% slider rate would be a career-high by over 20%. His slider has been one of the best in baseball, holding opponents to a .156 batting average, .219 slugging percentage, and .195 wOBA. He’s almost completely dropped his curveball, using it less than 0.5% of the time. His four-seamer also has the highest spin rate of his career.
The first thing to note is that ERA estimators do not like Velasquez’s performance so far. xFIP pins him at 4.60, while SIERA has him at 4.46. DRA absolutely hates him at 5.86. The most optimistic is xERA (Statcast’s expected ERA) at 3.80. That’s slightly concerning, especially given he only as a batting average on balls in play of .258. But do keep in mind that ERA estimator metrics also didn’t look upon Josė Quintana too fondly during his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Around this time in 2022, Quintana had a 4.35 SIERA and 3.99 xFIP. He ended up out-pitching both metrics by a large margin from May through October, both with the Pirates and Cardinals.
Of course, Quintana’s 2022 season is just one isolated incident and is far from a perfect one-for-one comparison to Vinny V on top of that. I still believe he could overperform his expected statistics, however. Plus, some expected stats like xwOBA (.304) still paint him in a positive light. I wouldn’t hold my breath that he produces an ERA in the low-3s, but if he were to end 2023 with a 3.50-3.80 ERA, which is much better than average for your no. 5 starter.