Phillies Mailbag: Velasquez's future, Crawford's slow start, 1B situation

Phillies Mailbag: Velasquez's future, Crawford's slow start, 1B situation

The box is full and your friendly neighborhood mailman is back to answer all those burning Phillies curiosities of yours. 

Hit me:

Vince Velasquez is a unique pitcher. He's in the top-five in baseball the last two seasons in strikeouts per nine innings among starting pitchers, but he's also toward the bottom in pitches per inning and innings per start.

With Velasquez, his K/9 doesn't really matter -- it's more like a K/5, because he rarely goes too much deeper into the game.

Velasquez is 26 starts into his Phillies career and has lasted past the sixth inning only three times. When he has a poor start, the Phils have little chance of a win because they're playing from behind early and forced to go to the bullpen. When he has a good outing, the Phillies still often require several scoreless innings from the 'pen to lock it down.

Velasquez is realistic about his struggles. He takes little solace in the high strikeout totals because they're less important than quick exits. He assessed his two starts this season as "terrible" and said he's not doing his team any favors.

If the Phillies wanted to convert him to the bullpen there is no doubt in my mind he'd be a very successful setup man or closer. He has the stuff and the mentality to be a closer. However, putting men on base is even more costly for a reliever and those lapses in control Velasquez has would be even more impactful in relief.

Still, it is the Phillies' goal to give him at least one more full season to gauge how much success he can have in a rotation. The talent and upside are there and they're not going anywhere. 

"There's no other alternative," manager Pete Mackanin said Wednesday night when asked if he's content to wait it out with Velasquez. "Hopefully during the course of this season, he's going to show improvement. I have a lot of confidence in him making progress during the course of the year."

Matt Klentak didn't trade Ken Giles to Houston for a package led by Velasquez simply to replace Giles in the ninth inning with Velasquez a year later. But this organization will also be realistic about Velasquez' chances to contribute. 

The true deciding factor will be the progress made by the Phillies' young pitching prospects. The five guys at Triple-A -- Zach Eflin, Nick Pivetta, Jake Thompson, Ben Lively and Mark Appel -- will also get chances in the big leagues sooner rather than later. If they fail, there's no urgency or reason to move Velasquez. If several of them show their stuff can play at the big-league level, though, it will be an interesting conversation for the organization this winter.

But don't expect any change to be made with Velasquez's role in 2017.

J.P. Crawford is off to a rough start at Triple-A Lehigh Valley, going 3 for 28 (.107) with one walk and 10 strikeouts in his first seven games.

It's a continuation of Crawford's struggles at the minors' highest level last season. All told, Crawford has been a .234/.315/.308 hitter in 414 plate appearances at Triple-A.

At some point, the performance for Crawford has to match the hype in order for the Phillies to feel confident he can produce every day in the majors. It sounds crazy because Crawford is their top prospect, but at this point, he is not ready to step in and contribute more than Freddy Galvis. Galvis is an elite defensive shortstop and continues to hit for power. Obviously, Galvis' on-base percentage last season was ugly, but if he feels the pressure placed on him by Crawford and improves in that regard, who knows when Crawford gets the job.

The bottom line is Crawford is going to have to hit his way up to the bigs. He won't be handed the job unless Galvis goes down with a long-term injury. Phillies director of player development Joe Jordan said before the season that Crawford developed some bad habits at Double-A Reading last season that he carried with him to Triple A. If last season was about Crawford improving his defense, this season is about him showing his offensive ability consists of more than just plate discipline.

Joseph played well enough last season to earn the everyday job heading into this season, but it's not as if it's his job for good. He's being pushed by 1B Rhys Hoskins, who is off to a strong start at Triple-A after hitting 38 home runs with a high on-base percentage last season at Double A. Through eight games with the IronPigs, Hoskins has gone 9 for 26 (.346) with three doubles, a homer and four walks.

Before the season, Jordan referred to Hoskins as the "smartest hitter" at Lehigh Valley, which is high praise considering Crawford, Roman Quinn, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro and Dylan Cozens are also there.

If Hoskins keeps hitting and Joseph is at .220 with a .290 on-base percentage in June or July, you could see the Phils add Hoskins to the 40-man roster, designate someone for assignment and call him up. In that scenario, why not see what he has? Hoskins is going to be 25 years old before the end of next spring training, so it's not as if he needs several more years of development.

This is an interesting question. As of Thursday night, the Phillies had allowed nine home runs already this season with two strikes and no other team had allowed more than six. The Phillies' team ERA with two strikes is 4.81; the MLB average is around 2.80.

Missing so badly with two strikes usually comes down to a lack of concentration. It can be execution, too, but oftentimes if the count is 0-2 or 1-2, the pitcher shouldn't be anywhere near the plate. That's when you bury a breaking ball or pump an enticing fastball high and just out of the strike zone.

Take a look at some of these two-strike pitches, especially to Yoenis Cespedes. Look where Cameron Rupp sets up and where the pitch ends up. Shoutout to MLB.com's Ben Harris for the screen grabs:

He's right. You can't pin that on Rupp. The pitchers simply need to hit their spots.

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

Best of MLB: Manny Machado in center of bad blood as Red Sox beat Orioles

BALTIMORE -- A tempestuous three-game series between the Red Sox and Baltimore wound up with Matt Barnes being ejected for throwing a fastball behind the head of Orioles star Manny Machado in Boston's 6-2 victory Sunday.

Barnes' ejection was the latest facet of this tense rivalry between AL East rivals. His high, very inside pitch came two days after Machado took out Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia with a spikes-high slide.

Pedroia watched from the dugout for a second straight day Sunday with knee and ankle injuries. Machado apologized with a text message on Friday night, but that evidently wasn't the end of it.

When Machado batted in the sixth inning, Eduardo Rodriguez threw three pitches down and in near the knees. He came up again in the eighth and Barnes' pitch whizzed behind Machado and hit his bat. The ball hit Machado and rolled foul, and plate umpire Andy Fletcher tossed Barnes (see full recap).

Bour's 3-run homer lifts Marlins past Padres
SAN DIEGO -- Justin Bour hit a three-run homer to cap the six-run sixth inning and help the Miami Marlins to a 7-3 victory Sunday against the San Diego Padres.

The first six Marlins batters reached and scored in the sixth, helping Tom Koehler (1-1) to his first win of the season.

San Diego's Luis Perdomo came off the disabled list and shut down the Marlins through five before hitting the wall in the sixth. Martin Prado hit a leadoff single, Christian Yelich walked and Giancarlo Stanton hit an RBI single to chase Perdomo.

Craig Stammen (0-1) came on and allowed Marcell Ozuna's RBI double just past the glove of first baseman Wil Myers and J.T. Realmuto's RBI single to left before Bour hit a no-doubter to right field, his third.

Kevin Quackenbush relieved and got three straight outs (see full recap).

Astros use 2-run 10th to beat Rays
ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Brian McCann and Yuli Gurriel both had RBI singles in the 10th inning, and the Houston Astros rallied from an early four-run deficit to beat the Tampa Bay Rays 6-4 on Sunday.

Carlos Beltran opened the 10th by drawing a walk from Ryan Garton (0-1) and went to second on Jose Altuve's single. After reaching third on Carlos Correa's fly to center, Beltran scored to make it 5-4 on McCann's hit to right.

Gurriel's two-out single put Houston ahead 6-4.

Luke Gregerson (1-1) went a scoreless ninth before Ken Giles got three out for his fifth save.

The Astros tied it at 4 on pinch-hitter Evan Gattis' sacrifice fly off closer Alex Colome, who was bidding for a two-inning save, in the ninth.

Brad Miller had an RBI triple, Steven Souza Jr. hit a two-run homer, and Jesus Sucre added a run-scoring single as the Rays went up 4-0 in the first (see full recap).

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

With new body, new swing, Cesar Hernandez keying Phillies' late-game power surges

BOX SCORE

A constant theme during the Phillies' playoff run from 2007-11 was that even when the offense was sputtering, it never felt like they were out of a game. That group of players picked up so many late hits and mounted so many comebacks that even a five-run deficit heading into the final three innings felt like a winnable game.

The 2017 Phillies are a much different, much less experienced, much less powerful team, but their late-game offense has been a surprisingly fun development this April.

The Phillies used back-to-back-to-back home runs in the eighth inning Sunday to pick up a 5-2 win over the Braves and a series sweep (see Instant Replay). Cesar Hernandez hit a go-ahead, two-run shot off hard-throwing reliever Arodys Vizcaino. Aaron Altherr followed with a solo shot on the next pitch. The Braves switched pitchers, then Odubel Herrera hit a solo homer of his own.

Just like that, ballgame.

The Phillies lead the majors with six home runs in the eighth inning. That's more than the Cubs, Red Sox, Rockies, Angels, Mariners, Pirates, White Sox, Tigers, Rangers, Giants and Astros have combined.

They've scored 14 runs in the eighth inning and 27 in innings 7-9. Both figures rank third-best in the National League behind only the Diamondbacks and Nationals.

Unexpected late-game heroics and unexpected power from some unlikely sources.

"It's always a bonus to have a team like that," manager Pete Mackanin said. "These guys pull for each other. We have a good bench, we have some interchangeable players that can step in and do a good job. ... They're fighters and it's good to see."

Hernandez continues to open eyes with his developing power. He has four home runs through 18 games after hitting six all of last season. He has more extra-base hits (nine) than Giancarlo Stanton, Kris Bryant, Paul Goldschmidt and Robinson Cano, among many others.

And he's done it without sacrificing his eye at the plate and slap-hitting ability. Hernandez is hitting .338 through 80 at-bats.

Hernandez gained muscle over the winter and reported to spring training looking noticeably bigger, but Mackanin credits the power surge to a change in his swing plane.

"He had an uppercut swing," Mackanin said. "He worked underneath the ball, which made him a low-ball hitter. I think the fact that we convinced him to level out his swing and stay on top of the ball -- work above the ball and work your way down through the strike zone -- I think has not only given him more power but also (the ability) to hit more line drives and use the whole field."

Makes sense. Managers, hitting coaches and players talk all the time about how you don't hit a home run when you're trying to hit a home run, you hit one when you're thinking up the middle and catch the ball with the barrel.

Hernandez hasn't lofted more balls because he's trying to loft them, he's done it by getting stronger and developing a more consistent swing.

"He's an on-base guy and a leadoff hitter and now I'm starting to think of him as a cleanup hitter as well," Mackanin said jokingly. "It is nice. It's good to see. He's not trying to hit home runs. He's trying to hit line drives and when you work above the ball and level your swing out and you hit the bottom half of the ball, the ball is going to go up with a line-drive swing. Because of that, he's hitting more gaps and hitting for more power."

In a way, it's similar to what Herrera did last season, jumping from eight home runs as a rookie to 15 as a sophomore as he continued learning the strike zone, learning major-league pitchers and learning of his own capabilities.

"I love watching Cesar hit the ball," Herrera said. "He has a beautiful swing and he makes great contact on the ball. It's great to be behind him."

With Hernandez leading off and Herrera batting third, the top of the Phillies' lineup has gotten on base a ton. They've gotten a .384 on-base percentage from the 1-3 spots in the order. Just imagine how many additional runs the Phillies would have produced to this point if Maikel Franco or Tommy Joseph were hitting consistently.

"I like all three right there," Mackanin said. "I like Howie Kendrick, also. I'm anxious for him to get back (from the DL) and then we'll go from there. We've got some good things going. We've got a good bench. We've got Altherr, (Daniel) Nava, (Andres) Blanco. We've got (Andrew) Knapp who's doing a good job behind the plate. I think we're in pretty good shape that way."

It's not going to be an explosive, league-leading offense, but it's certainly a deeper offense than it was a year ago. An addition like Nava, for example, has proven to be underrated and pay early dividends. Remember, he was one of the last men chosen for the opening day roster. So far this April, he's succeeded in every role in which the Phillies have used him.

Despite not playing regularly, Nava has reached base in 16 of his first 31 plate appearances, something no first-year Phillie has done since Jeremy Giambi in 2002.

"Nava is really valuable to us," Mackanin said. "He's a part-time player that gives you good at-bats, quality at-bats. He works the count, obviously the first game of the season he showed us he's got power. Gap power and the occasional home run from both sides of the plate. 

"Watching a guy like that, you can't help but notice. If it was me and I was a free swinger, I'd go up to him and ask him, 'How do I tone it down a little bit?' He just doesn't get himself out."