Tonight in Oakland, Hector Velazquez will make his Boston Red Sox debut against the Athletics. But, who is this mysterious right-handed pitcher and what can be expected as he makes his MLB debut?
Hector Velazquez, a six-foot, 180-pound 28-year-old starter, had his contract purchased by the Red Sox in February from the Piratas de Campeche of the Mexican League – a team he had been under contract with since his professional pitching debut at 21 in 2010. However, Velazquez had never been much of a target prior to his breakout in 2016 – a season where he was loaned out by Campeche to Acereros de Monclava. In his 22 starts for the Acereros, Velazquez tossed 131 ⅓ innings while compiling a 2.47 ERA and a 0.997 WHIP – the first time he had broken below the one runner per inning barrier. He continued his dominance in the Mexican Winter League, where he made 14 more starts, throwing an additional 85 ⅓ innings with Navojoa recording a 2.32 ERA and a 1.102 WHIP. Overall in 2016, Velazquez threw a career high 246 ⅔ innings between the Mexican Summer and Winter Leagues along with his work in the Caribbean Series, going 18-4 with a 2.37 ERA and a 1.050 WHIP. Hector also struck out 242 batters – his 8.8 K/9 was an increase of 1.2 over his previous best season in 2014 – while walking only 39 – his 1.4 BB/9 was a decrease of 1.5 over his previous best mark in 2013.
In an interview with Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald in February, Velazquez spoke of the major change to his pitching:
“The biggest change was being more brave and throwing more strikes. I think that aggressive approach I started taking and the fact that I was throwing strikes and getting outs gave me a lot more confidence. In addition to that, being healthy and that health allowing me to be on the field more consistently and seeing more batters.”
It is difficult to pinpoint when his effectiveness started to change. In the 2015 winter-league season with Navojoa, Velazquez went 5-2 with a 2.92 ERA over 13 starts – but he only whiffed 36 and walked 21 in his 71 innings. It wasn’t even his best winter-league performance, having gone 8-1 with a 2.17 ERA over 13 starts in 2013. However, in between those two winter-league seasons, Hector was much less effective. In 2014, between Campeche and Navojoa, the righty went 11-14 over 32 starts with a 5.01 ERA and a 1.524 WHIP – walking 76 batters in 165 ⅓ innings. His 2015 Mexican League season wasn’t much better, going 6-4 in 18 appearances for Campeche, putting up a 4.44 ERA and a 1.395 WHIP.
Prior to his 2013 Mexican Winter League breakout, Velazquez was largely forgettable. In his first season in 2010, he put up a 3.81 ERA in 55 games, largely in relief. It appears in 2011, he missed most of the season with an injury, pitching in only 15 games with a 4.97 ERA. As a 23-year-old in 2012, Hector became a full-time starter, tossing 33 games with a 5.02 ERA and a 1.500 WHIP. His 2013 season with Campeche showed some improvement, with a 4.19 ERA and a 1.492 WHIP over 22 starts. However, in a league that is considered as a AAA equivalent, it was nothing to get excited over.
But, whatever changes Velazquez implemented that made him so effective in 2016, he has been able to carry with him to the International League. However, there was a small bump in the road. In his first start with the Pawtucket Red Sox on April 11, Velazquez tossed 79 pitches in his 4 ⅔ innings start, yielding four runs (three earned) on four singles and two walks. However, he was also a little bit unlucky. An error in the second allowed the first run to score. A stolen base in the third put a runner in scoring position, where he was able to score on a single to center. And in the fifth, he left two men on with two outs for Edgar Olmos, who allowed both inherited runners to score as he let his first three men reach base. However, it was his best game of the season in terms of strikeouts, whiffing six Syracuse men.
In his next game, he gave up three singles, a double, and a walk in a five-inning scoreless start against Charlotte. Velazquez was super efficient that night, tossing only 59 pitches and inducing 11 ground balls. His next game was even better. On April 30, Velazquez faced 18 batters – retiring all 18 – struck out four and tossed only 55 pitches. If not for a 21-minute rain delay in the middle of the fourth inning, Hector may have been able to pitch even further into the game – given his low pitch count and effectiveness, perhaps even going for a complete perfect game.
Coming off a perfect start, Velazquez continued his run avoidance in his next appearance against the Yankees AAA affiliate. For the first time with Pawtucket, Hector pitched into the seventh (leaving with one out) and was allowed to throw over 90 pitches (ending with 92). He surrendered three singles and two walks in his 6 ⅓ inning appearance, striking out four more. Five days later – the first time pitching on normal rest with the PawSox – Hector threw 96 pitches while going a full seven frames. After 21 ⅓ innings of scoreless pitching, Velazquez surrendered a run in the fifth inning, granting his first home run of the season to Mitch Garver. He gave up back-to-back doubles in the seventh which put a second run on the board against him on the day. Although Hector allowed seven hits on the day (three singles, three doubles, and a homer), they were the only baserunners allowed as the righty avoided giving out a walk for the second time in the season.
Overall, in his five starts with the PawSox, Velazquez has a 1.55 ERA and a 0.793 WHIP over 29 innings pitched. The right-hander has whiffed 20 batters while walking only five and giving up only five extra-base hits in his time with Pawtucket.
What might we expect in his first MLB start? After his first start in spring training, manager John Farrell had this to say to the Herald’s Drellich:
“A very efficient delivery. Repeatable. He threw strikes. There was a decent depth to his cutter, slider. But he looked very comfortable on the mound for just joining camp.”
While Red Sox fans can hope for Velazquez to break out in a big way, perhaps with seven shutout innings, the team is probably looking for something more in the way of just a decent start. Getting through five full and allowing less than six runs might be the most modest goal for Velazquez – but it was something that Kyle Kendrick was unable to do in his two starts for Boston.