The Curious Career of Anthony Vasquez, and the Value of Organizational Arms

Feature Photo: Anthony Vasquez, LHP, Phillies
(shown with Mariners in 2011)

I was admittedly looking forward to sitting on the recent Reading/Trenton series at Arm & Hammer Park in Trenton from May 12th-15th, purely to see the bevy of talent that the Fightin’ Phils had traveling through the Double-A Eastern League at that time. With the higher-profile likes of SS J.P. Crawford, CF Roman Quinn, 1B Rhys Hoskins, RF Dylan Cozens, the elite arm of C Jorge Alfaro in the lineup, and RHP Ben Lively the scheduled Sunday starter, I was expecting to keep a full notebook of the ‘name’ guys and work it into an article.

But while sitting with a Phillies front office executive behind home plate and a team scout, the player we had the most fun talking about was the Friday night starter; a journeyman 29-year-old who may not ever get back to the big leagues. And it got us talking more about the intangible value of players like Anthony Vasquez (LHP, Phillies), and their impact on a club’s player development philosophy as a whole.

Vasquez is making the Reading squad his 11th professional team across three organizations since he was drafted in 18th round of the 2009 MLB First-Year Player Draft. Not included in those totals are three winter league stops: the Venezuelan Winter League in 2013 and the Mexican Pacific Winter League in 2014 and 2015. The man has moved around. A lot.

Anthony Vasquez, LHP, Mariners (2011)

And yes, he has in fact made it to the big leagues, as a member of the Seattle Mariners in 2011. His stat line there is one for the books, and not for the right reasons. Over seven starts and 29.1 IP, he surrendered as many home runs as he recorded strikeouts (13), and he was raked for 46 hits, 35 runs, and a .351 BAA.

After returning to Triple-A Tacoma for the 2012 season, he also got the scare of his life while rehabbing a shoulder injury at the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Arizona, where he needed emergency brain surgery to remove a ruptured arteriovenous malformation (AVM) – a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain that can cause hemorrhaging (hat-tip to the Mayo Clinic for that tid bit). (Jake Kaplan of the Philadelphia Inquirer tells the story in more detail here).

After being released by the M’s following the 2013 season, he hooked on with the Baltimore Orioles as a free agent, spending most of the year at Double-A Bowie, before electing free agency and signing with the Phillies on February 26, 2015.

He spent the first month of 2015 at Reading before being promoted to Triple-A Lehigh Valley, where he had limited success against the more advanced Triple-A hitters over 20 starts (see below for how limited that success was). This year, and he was assigned to Double-A Reading out of spring training.

Thus far in 2016, Vasquez had performed well for the Fightin’ Phils prior to my viewing, sporting a 5-1 record and 1.98 ERA through his first six starts. I was able to watch his next start on May 13th, and purely from a scouting standpoint, it was a pleasant surprise, and hell of a lot of fun, to come to the ballpark and watch him work for the first time. This was the profile that resulted:

LogoMLBPHIAnthony Vasquez, LHP, Phillies (Double-A Reading, Eastern League)
Ht/Wt: 6’0” / 190 B/T: L/L        Age: 29 Yrs, 8m

“It was fun to watch Vasquez really work his way through the Thunder lineup on May 13th. His delivery features a moderately high leg lift with a turn over the rubber that shows his numbers to the hitter, and some shoulder tilt, before uncoiling a smooth, easy delivery with long arm action from a 3/4 slot.  His approach is clearly to pound his three-pitch arsenal down in the lower third of the zone and rely on his sequencing to keep hitters off-balance.  And for the early innings of this viewing he did just that.

His fastball sat 85-to-88 mph (T89), with slight downhill plane and arm-side run at times, but his command wavered after the fourth inning, and he was leaving the ball up in the strike zone.  Combine that with the lack of velo, and it led to hard contact (of his eight hits allowed, a homer by Lane Adams and a double by Sebastian Valle were both on 87 mph fastballs left up, and were what ultimately knocked him out of this game). The cutter sat in the 83-to-87 mph range with similar plane to the fastball and with some moderate late dart.  He had better command of that offering, and it did its job in generating nine ground ball outs.

His changeup sat in two ranges: a 77-to-80 mph version and another in the 70-to-72 range – even throwing 64/66 mph versions – but in both velo ranges he slowed his arm down, seemingly aiming the pitch.  It had fading action to the arm side in the higher velo band and flashed some tumble when he was able to take a little off, and he showed average control of the pitch.  He used his curveball sparingly in two versions – one in the 77-to-80 mph range with a slurvy action and some sweep, and a loopy curve at 70-to-71 mph with 1-to-7 shape. 

He controlled the running game well, with varied delivery times (1.25-to-1.80) to the plate and a deceptively quick move to first to keep runners close, including a pick-off in the fourth. He fields his position well, showing quick reflexes on two liners back at him, and had a nice pivot and sharp throw to start a 1-6-3 GDP in the fourth inning.

Overall, he’s having a nice start to the season at Reading and his control is improved over last year (2.1 BB/9IP, down from 3.8/9 at Triple-A Lehigh). He has pitched into the seventh inning in each of his seven starts this year in building a 5-2 record and 2.09 ERA, and a WHIP of 1.09, and his 47.1 IP leads the Eastern League.  But the question is, where does he go from here with his repertoire, and is his performance sustainable? 

With an average changeup, fringy cutter, and a below-average fastball and curveball, Vasquez is entirely reliant on commanding his fastball and cutter down in the strike zone to be successful, but has to be darn near perfect with his command or he’ll get squared-up.  His Double-A and Triple-A performances from 2012-15 have shown that he lacks the ability to get advanced hitters out consistently. His time at Triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2015 left something to be desired. He sported a 4.56 ERA over 20 starts, giving up 105 hits over 108.2 IP, with a 1.39 WHIP and just 61 K’s. His 2014 season at Double-A Bowie was largely ineffective as well (116 IP, 4.73 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, .295 BAA).  Even going back to his last stay at Triple-A in 2012 at Tacoma (save for a brief 7.2 IP and 8.22 ERA in Norfolk in 2014), he was rocked in 11 starts and sported a 6.53 ERA, a .319 BAA and a 1.65 WHIP.

What I think we are seeing presently is a 29-year-old at his maxed-out talent level.  He may get a chance to eat some innings later this year in Lehigh Valley if he keeps churning out the quality starts in Reading, but it’s hard to see his repertoire projecting any further than it’s current state, and it’s tough to see him getting another shot at facing big league hitters.”

I was going to just publish the report and move on, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much I appreciated seeing players like Vasquez. As you can see in the report, it was a fair amount of work to write the guy up, because his repertoire was so varied. Granted, the report comes across as a bit of a harsh assessment. He’s a young man facing some challenges in getting his career moving on an upward trajectory again, and his present value is what it is. But it also begged the question…why do older minor leaguers, facing headwinds on their quest to return to the major leagues, keep throwing?

Organizationally, there’s no doubt that players like Vasquez bring valuable intangibles to a club, as much off the field as on the field. Having a stable, consistent veteran presence in a Double-A clubhouse has value in itself, given the high-volume rollover of a team’s roster during a typical season at this level (Reading had no less than 34 pitchers throw for them last year). Someone like Vasquez brings that leadership and presence to Reading, setting an example with his work ethic and game preparation for younger prospects who are still getting acclimated to baseball as a job. He knows how to travel, and he brings a mental Rolodex of experiences to the table that the young pro’s simply haven’t acquired yet. That type of player has value to a club well beyond the stat line.

And he brings something that always commands respect in a Double-A clubhouse – he’s made it to the big leagues. He probably has a mentoring role that equates to being an extra coach for Reading, and that brings as much value to the Phillies as does his role as an innings-eating starting pitcher does. Players like him tend to stick around.

Lightning may not strike twice for Vasquez in terms of his future in the big leagues – he’ll need to find something up his sleeve that bumps his repertoire up beyond its current state. What would be next for him? It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he wound up jumping right into coaching or scouting (like his father, Rudy, who is a scout with the Los Angeles Angels) whenever the time comes to take the spikes off.

But for now, he was certainly an intriguing view for me, and he is someone I’ll be following closely purely out of respect for the work he is putting in to refine his craft, while being a positive influence the young Fightin’ Phils roster of prospects and helping them become more polished professional players. It was also a reminder of how much pure fun it is to evaluate prospects at the Double-A level – you just never know what will catch your eye on a particular night.