The Pittsburgh Pirates are back to where they started regarding the pitching rotation just two days ago. Two innings after coming off the injured list for his first start in 23 days, Vince Velasquez departed the ballgame and could be out even longer than before.
Starting against the Seattle Mariners in the Pacific Northwest, Velasquez allowed four runs on seven hits and one walk and was pulled from the matchup with right elbow discomfort. It’s the same injury that plagued the 30-year-old right-hander for most of May.
Velasquez dominated opposing hitters in five April starts, helping the Pirates to a 20-8 record to put the baseball world on notice. The Pirates’ free-agent acquisition finished April 4-2 with a 3.06 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 32.1 innings. He earned a solid opponent batting average (.211) and WHIP (1.18) after a rocky first two starts. Velasquez allowed three runs in his final 25 April innings, spanning four starts. The magic quickly dispersed as the Bucs came back to earth.
The righty injured his right forearm in Tampa Bay on May 4, facing the Rays. Velasquez allowed one run on two hits in three innings. Since the Rays series, the ship has begun to sink for the Bucs and Velasquez.
They benefitted from each other’s success and are both found between a rock and hard place as the injury has been reaggravated. Pittsburgh opted to keep Luis Ortiz in the starting rotation to pitch Sunday in Seattle, leaving a giant question mark surrounding Roansy Contreras.
Ben Cherington and Derek Shelton chose to designate Duane Underwood Jr. for assignment to make room for Velasquez and created an opening in the bullpen.
Should there be significant concerns surrounding Contreras? His fastball velocity is down 1.5 MPH from last year and 2 MPH two seasons ago. The 23-year-old is deploying his slider at a 43 percent rate, the most in his young career, and tops of any pitch in 2023. A trip to the injured list may be in his near future after his start was skipped in favor of Velasquez.
One potential avenue is for the Pirates to try Contreras in the bullpen and attempt a Keller-like route. Before he was a potential All-Star and the Pirates’ bonafide ace, Mitch Keller delivered results in the bottom half of baseball and went to the pen in desperate need of a change. Years of tinkering and changes had not paid dividends for Keller, until a few months into 2022. While refining his stuff and attempting to remake his image as a pitcher, Keller added a sinker. The pitch saved his career.
Contreras owns a four-pitch mix that’s truly two, using his four-seam fastball and slider a combined 85 percent of the time. He flashes a curveball (10 percent) and changeup (5 percent) but maintains a fastball-slider two-pitch mix that suits well for the pen. In no way does that mean he should become a reliever and stick there, but would a similar move Keller made be logical? The decision was a last-ditched effort to save Keller and the Pirates hope he would become a serviceable major leaguer. Becoming an ace with a sub-three ERA wasn’t fathomable at the time.
In nine starts, Contreras owns a 3-4 record, 4.50 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in 50 innings. One significant cause for concern is the lack of swing and miss. Contreras has only stuck out 35 hitters and ranks in low percentiles by Baseball Savant in chase rate (37th), average exit velocity (25th), walk percentage (24th) and strikeout percentage (13th).
Velasquez’s noticeable dip in velocity and nagging forearm discomfort may force the Pirates’ hand to keep him in the starting rotation and treat the dilemma publicly as just a skipped start. Contreras can continue to fix his issues and potentially offer a new delivery while remaining a valuable part of the rotation for his and the Pirates’ best interest. It’s not an easy task and should be a pressing topic for much of his next handful of appearances.
There should be considerable concern surrounding both pitchers, especially Contreras, who has the stuff to be a front-line starter but, despite a few solid outings, has been off his typical result pattern. Next week’s action against St. Louis will provide more answers to many pressing questions.