Wednesday, May 1, 2013

An Interview with Astros RHP Vincent Velasquez

Last Friday, I was in for a treat. I had just gotten into Davenport, Iowa that afternoon and was settling in on the first row at Modern Woodmen Ballpark to see the Quad Cities River Bandits take on the Lansing Lugnuts. Vincent Velasquez took the mound and dominated, scattering three singles and two walks over five innings while striking out eight batters, including striking out the side in his final inning of work. By the time the night was over, Velasquez secured his third win of the season and dropped his ERA to 1.17.

Before I caught up with Velasquez, I first talked to Pitching Coach Dave Borkowski about Velasquez, his recovery from Tommy John surgery and the type of pitcher he is, "He's full go. He has no health restrictions. He's fun to watch. He is focused. He's a gamer. He's a bulldog on that mound. He gets after it and challenges guys." When asked about Velasquez' velocity, Borkowski played it coy with me, "He's hitting hard enough. It's good. He's where he needs to be."

I spoke with Velasquez the next day. He comes across as very confident and dedicated. He is a self-described "simple guy" whose sole focus since coming in to the Astros system in 2010 as a second round draft pick has been to build upon his talent and abilities in order to forge a successful career.

Vincent Velasquez - April 2013
Photo by Jayne Hansen

The first question was about whether or not he felt 100% since having Tommy John surgery in 2011. He confirmed Borkowski's diagnosis, "I have no worries about it anymore at all, not holding back or anything like that. That was actually last year, where I was kind of hesitating at Tri-City, but I’m pretty much fully ready to go."

As a matter of fact, when I asked about his pitch repertoire, he admitted that the surgery was actually beneficial, "My fastball’s pretty much over-powering. Due to the Tommy John, I gained velocity. You might at first lose some control, but that’s why you have a whole year of rehab to work on that. My changeup has always been there for me. I’ve been working a lot on the curveball the whole last year, but that’s pretty much all I throw. Of course your best pitch should always be your fastball. My second pitch should be a curveball, but I’ve been working on that a lot." When I quizzed him about his velocity, he was more forthcoming than Borkowski, "I’ve been sitting 94-95 and I touch 96. Last year I hit 97."

When I mentioned his dominance from the previous night, he surprised me when he told me that his "arm was dragging a little bit," which launched us on a discussion about the mental aspect of the game. He asserted that it was his mindset that helped him push through on Friday. That led me to ask if that mindset helped with the tandem pitching regimen, and he agreed that it did, "It’s all in your head. You’re either going to fail or succeed. Gotta be optimistic. Just pretty much go out there and do your best and look for success." And he feels that pitching in relief early in his career also helped.

When I asked Velasquez what Astros pitcher had a pitch he'd like to steal, he recalled seeing Asher Wojciechowski in Spring Training, "His slider is really nasty. To have that slider as a starter, it’s pretty legit. There’s also some relievers … Travis Ballew has a great slider. He has a whip. For him to be that skinny and to throw that hard, it’s very impressive. [His slider] just falls right off the table. I’d probably say a slider, but that would be hard to choose from. Either it’s Travis or Wojo."

I asked what Astros hitter he would least like to face and he responded, "We’ve got a lot of good hitters. You’ve got [Jon] Singleton. You’ve got [George] Springer. Austin Wates is a good hitter. Those guys are at those levels for a reason. They’re competitive hitters. They battle. It’s just so hard to choose from because we have great hitters in our upcoming prospects. I can’t even choose one because there are so many." I definitely got the impression that he wouldn't hesitate to face any of them, a suspicion he quickly confirmed, "I’m pretty much the challenging type. I go out there and challenge myself. That’s the whole point of the game, to challenge yourself and then you get one batter and you go to another. I just like to go out there and see what I can do against the hitter."

Had any leaders started to emerge on the Quad Cities squad? According to Velasquez, not really. "I can’t particularly pick out a certain leader because we’re all leaders on the team. We all pick each other up defensively, offensively, we’re all working together as a team so we’re pretty much all leading the whole team. We all work together as one. We win as a team. We lose as a team. And that’s just how we go down. I’m not that type of person where I want to go out and lead a whole team or anything like that. I just want to go out there and show my talent and just do what I gotta do. I pick my teammates up. I’m kind of that personality. That’s just who I am. That’s just how I was born and raised to be, and thanks to my father for teaching me to be that person. I don’t particularly pick one person on the team who’s actually a leader because we’re all leaders."

When queried about who on the team makes him laugh, the discussion evolved to the importance of having friends from home to make the minor league life a little easier. "We all laugh. My personality is just I’m a kid who likes to laugh a lot. It can be any little silly thing. Rio [Ruiz] and I, we grew up in the same area so we’ve known each other for quite some time. We’ve been hanging out a little bit. It’s a blessing to have someone you know from home. There’s another guy, Wallace Gonzalez, who came on to the team and I knew him. Of course, we weren’t on the same team at the time, but just to have some friends from home is just a good feeling to have. We all laugh together in the locker room with the coaches, the manager, everything like that. We all have a good laugh even in the down times. We move on from the bad and we just continue with happiness."

Velasquez had a little difficulty answering my next question in which I asked him to tell me something about himself that most people didn't know, "I’m pretty much just a simplistic person, hang out with friends, pretty much like playing golf in the off-season." But as the conversation continued, he told me this little tidbit about growing up with sports, "I’ve been playing since I was three years old. My Dad was the one who put the ball and the bat in my hand. Also, he put a golf club, he put golf shoes, soccer cleats, all sorts of things in my hand. I loved playing basketball. I love sports. I’m pretty much just a simple guy who likes playing sports, dedicated to baseball, who likes hanging out with friends and just getting to know other people and things like that."

Velasquez would like to start working on some college courses in the off-season, something he's had to postpone, "I didn’t do any classes right out of high school because I was focused on my first year to see how I would develop and [then] I ended up having the injury. After that injury, I pretty much focused on the injury and [trying] to bounce back, but now I’m back on pace. I have absolutely no idea what I want to get into. Once I get into college, I’ll probably get a general idea what I want to do."

Was the decision to sign right out of high school a difficult one? "I was considering college at first. I was going to go to Cal State Fullerton to be a shortstop, but my [comfort] level was going towards getting drafted. That’s always been an all-time goal coming through high school. That’s just the ultimate goal for a high schooler. Growing up as a little kid, I wanted to get drafted. I wanted to start my career a little bit early and see how I would do. But then also it’s a learning experience as you go. It’s been successful for the most part and I’ve just been enjoying the ride, just keep on cruising."

I told him that I thought that he would quickly move up the prospect rankings now that he's healthy. He responded, "That’s what I kind of had the feeling of after I had Tommy John surgery. You go down [in the rankings], but I’m just trying to make my way back up, not because of the top prospect or anything like that, trying to get number one or anything like that. I’m just trying to show people that have this injury that it is possible to come back and that it’s all about your work ethic. You’ve got to get over that hump because it’s the mental part. When it comes to this injury a lot of people they don’t want to do the work. I’ve experienced that so many times where I didn’t want to do anything that had to do with my elbow because it hurt so bad. The thing is you have to do it in order to be successful, to move on, to proceed, to continue the job that you were assigned to do. I pretty much overcame that mental aspect and I just pushed myself and now I’m back in a good place. That’s pretty much what I’m trying to express with other people, show other people that anything’s really possible."

As a final question, I asked Velasquez what he would say to frustrated Astros fans. "We’ve got a lot of talent. You’ve got [Carlos] Correa. You’ve got Rio. You’ve got Lance [McCullers]. Springer. You’ve got a lot of prospects. I want to say within the next few years, this team could really turn around. I mean there’s so much talent. If these people [Astros fans] haven’t noticed, it’s going to be noticeable soon because this team is really going to turn around and it’s a high possibility we might win a ring back-to-back-to-back years. We have so much talent in this organization. If we keep working all together, we could be unstoppable. Don’t give up on us too quick because we’ll turn it around. Two plus years. I’m going to be looking forward to it."

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Velasquez is a very, very confident young man. He is confident in himself and he is confident in the ability of his fellow players to turn things around for the Astros. His confidence could easily be mistaken for cockiness, but that assessment couldn't be any further from the truth. The truth is that he simply believes in himself and in his talent, much as others do. Borkowski told me one last thing about Velasquez, "There's just no fear in what he does." And why should there be. He's just a simple guy, a simple guy who just happens to throw a 97 mph fastball from time to time.

Thank you for your time, Vincent, and the best of luck as the season unfolds.

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