Nelson Velazquez may be the hottest hitter on the planet. His 2021 season numbers look impressive enough (.270/.333/.496 with 20 home runs), but he also made significant changes to his swing stance, approach, and decision-making that led to a monstrous finish to the season and continued in the Arizona Fall League. I ranked Nelson Velazquez 18th on my 2021 post season rankings. In trying to understand best what Velazquez changed this year, I dug into past video from 2019 and during different stretches of 2021. I also reached out to individuals who could shed some light on how Velazquez is becoming a household name.
Comparing the two stances, you notice the flatter bat path. From 2019 views, Velazquez struggled with fastballs in the upper part of the zone. He also struggled with breaking balls. Pairing elevated fastballs with hard breaking balls (especially curveballs) is an in-vogue strategy to combat a hitter’s desire to drive the ball in the air and slug. According to discussion behind-the-scenes, the Cubs felt that Velazquez would improve managing elevated pitches with a flatter bat set up. He had already worked diligently to recognize spin better and hit breaking balls during the COVID-19 lost season. The ultimate goal of this stance could be to help Velazquez get into a better launch position.
The concept of embracing the “launch angle” has been a frequent topic in the game for several years. Despite falling into the category of a hitting metric, many casual fans have heard the term launch angle bandied about in baseball writing and broadcasting. Unfortunately, launch angle is an often misunderstood term. Hitting instructors are trying to alter a hitter’s bat path to reach an optimal pitch angle with specific swing planes. It is not a new practice as the great Ted Williams even wrote about it, but Driveline provides a fantastic breakdown on the topic.
With elevated pitches being a significant challenge, Velazquez began to change his stance and bat path before the season. He even experienced moments where he could drive pitches that he would have struggled with in previous years. Swing changes can take time to implement, but incorporating those swing changes into a consistent approach at the plate is even more challenging.
It would be an absolute dream to mash every type of pitch in the zone, but hitters will often have holes in their respective swings. The goal is to manage pitches in specific zones, whether by avoiding swinging at those pitches or learning to foul them off. It appears the goal was for Velazquez to try to manage the top of the zone, but a byproduct of this approach led to a more passive approach and mixed results. From 5/15-7/31, he hit a pedestrian .771 OPS and 104 wRC+ with a 33.3% K rate. And concerningly, Velazquez had moments where he let fastballs in zones that he previously drove go by, leading to strikeouts.
The offensive performance was buoyed by beating hanging sliders, but it was clear that the elements still needed to coalesce. And after an adjustment period, it became clear the Cubs suggested Velazquez focus more on hunting pitches out over the plate. It’s safe to say that suggestion proved successful.
Bringing it all together
Solitary hitting changes rarely lead to profound impact. Velazquez incorporated multiple changes related to swing stance change, approach, and swing decision-making. After his diligent work during the COVID-19 lost season to remake his body and address a deficiency in hitting higher spinning breaking balls, these changes led to a massive breakout.
After August 1, Velazquez exploded with a .939 OPS and 156 wRC+ with a 7.5% walk rate and a 26.7 K%. He began to drive fastballs all over the strike zone. And instead of just managing the top of the zone, Velazquez put the ball in play and with authority. He’s continued that incredible stretch in the Arizona Fall League, where he faces premier talent. He’s hitting an absurd .397/.493/.741 for the Mesa Solar Sox, all but cementing the decision to give Velazquez a 40-man roster spot this winter.
Feature photo of Nelson Velazquez by Rich Biesterfeld (@biest22)