Much like the team as a whole, the Astros rotation has undergone a lot of turmoil in recent times. Whether it be through free agent departures (Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton) or injuries (Justin Verlander), the group has seen a pretty significant exodus of talent over the last few seasons, and the 2020 version of it looked to be more vulnerable than it had in a long time. It wasn’t all bad for Houston, however, as one big bright spot shined through during the shortened season: the emergence of third-year lefty Framber Valdez.
If you weren’t overly familiar with Valdez before 2020, you wouldn’t be alone, as his first two seasons in the majors were spent posting inconsistent numbers while relegated to a swingman role behind the names mentioned above. The turnover in the Astros rotation forced them to give the 26-year-old a crack at being an full-time starter, though, and he rewarded them with a 3.57 ERA in 70.2 innings across 10 starts. Valdez’s great season went largely under the radar due to Houston’s subpar performance in the regular season, but when the postseason rolled around, he firmly put his name on the national map by recording a sterling 1.88 ERA in four appearances, including an excellent nine-strikeout outing against the Rays in the ALCS that pushed that series to a Game 7.
So how did Valdez make this happen? How did he go from a guy profiled as nothing more than a back-end starter or a long reliever to someone that the Astros will be penciling in at the top of their rotation heading into 2021?
It Takes Two
Valdez’s pitch mix in 2020 was very unconventional as far as starters are concerned, as he pretty much relied solely on the two-pitch combination of his sinker and curveball, with the occasional changeup mixed in against righties. At a usage rate of 54.1 percent, the sinker was pretty comfortably his most common offering, and it garnered some very odd results when you dig into the numbers behind it. At first glance, it might seem like it was not a very effective pitch, as both the batting average (.326) and average exit velocity (92.6 mph) against it were less than ideal. Look at its run value, however, you’ll find that it actually came in at an above average figure of -4, which ranked 25th out of more than 160 qualified sinkers across the league.
These two facts may appear contradictory to one another, but the effectiveness of Valdez’s sinker starts to make more sense when you look at how exactly these hard hit balls were coming against him:
If a hitter is making contact as well as they were against Valdez’s sinker, they more than likely want to get it in the air, as that is the batted ball type that is most conducive to better results when hit hard. This did not happen for the most part against Valdez, though, as he had the highest groundball rate among all qualified starters as well as one of the lowest fly ball and line drive rates in the league. The pitch was a ground ball machine, and even if these grounders weren’t finding gloves, they weren’t doing significant damage, as only seven of the 45 hits against it in 2020 went for extra bases. This made the hard contact against Valdez’s sinker a lot more manageable and allowed it to be perfectly serviceable as the primary offering in his repertoire.
The other pitch that Valdez mainly featured was his curveball, and unlike the sinker, you don’t have to do much digging to see why it was so effective for him:
Framber Valdez, Filthy 3 Pitch K (all Curveballs). 😷 pic.twitter.com/1DBz4KhJEj
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) September 29, 2020
Valdez’s curve was the keystone of his arsenal last year, and for good reason. Its 96th percentile spin rate put it among the league’s very best, and as the GIF above illustrates, this helped it achieve well above average marks in both average vertical and horizontal movement. It was more than just aesthetically pleasing, however, as it achieved top-notch production on top of that as well:
Anyway you want to look at it, Valdez’s curveball was an elite pitch in 2020. By run value, it ranked as the third best hook in all of baseball (behind only German Marquez and Shane Bieber), and in terms of all pitch types, it came in at 18th best. Hitters struggled to make contact with it all season as evidenced by the gaudy strikeout rate that it recorded, and even if they did manage to do so, they very rarely got even decent results against it. It wasn’t just a good pitch on its own, though, as it also worked really well in tandem with his aforementioned sinker:
Framber Valdez, 92mph Fastball and 80mph Curveball, Overlay. pic.twitter.com/aZQZDLkL8V
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 16, 2020
If you want another reason why Valdez’s sinker performed well despite some of its subpar peripherals, its relationship with his curve might be what you’re looking for. In this specific at bat against Yandy Diaz in the ALCS, the two pitches tunnel with each other very well. There’s a 12-miles-per-hour difference between them, but they travel on the same plane for a decent amount of time until the curve just falls off the table at the very end. The fact that they move in a similar fashion for so long makes it very difficult for hitters to key in on either of them, which makes it more likely that one or the other will catch them off balance as a result. Finding success with a primarily two-pitch mix is increasingly rare for starters nowadays, but Valdez managed to make it work and then some in 2020.
In the Zone
This synergy between his two main pitches was definitely a factor in Valdez’s breakout performance in 2020, but perhaps the biggest reason behind it were the improvements that he made as a strike thrower. During his first extended look in the majors in 2019, Valdez was plagued by a very bad walks problem, surrendering an ugly 5.60 free passes per nine innings and walking over 13 percent of the batters he faced. Both of these numbers were good for second worst in the entire league among pitchers with at least 70 innings thrown, and this inability to find the strike zone handicapped the ability that his stuff could have on hitters.
It was a different story for Valdez in 2020, though, as he managed to improve in pretty much all facets of strike throwing:
This newfound ability to find the strike zone with more consistency was huge for Valdez, as it gave him a much larger margin for error than he had at any point during his brief MLB career. The large amount of loud contact against Valdez was a lot more costly in 2019 when he was walking as many batters as he was, because the hard hit grounders mentioned earlier that weren’t finding gloves were oftentimes leading to runs because of the existing traffic on the basepaths brought on by so many free passes. Take those runners off the bases like Valdez did in 2020, though, and suddenly those well-struck ground balls don’t mean as much in the grand scheme of things.
This improvement in walk rate seems rather sudden when you consider where Valdez was prior to 2020 and where he ended up being at the end of last season, but the reasons why become more clear when you look at how well he commanded one specific part of the strike zone:
The people over at Baseball Savant divided the strike zone into four different regions: the heart, shadow, chase and waste zones from the middle on outward. Out of these four, the shadow region (which covers the very outer edge of the strike zone and the area immediately outside of it) is typically the one that pitchers have had the most success pitching to, and Valdez took a monumental step forward in his performance in that area in 2020 when you compare it to how he fared there in 2019:
|% of Total Pitches||K%||BB%||wOBA||xwOBA|
Valdez threw pretty much the same number of pitches to the shadow zone in both years, but the way that he commanded it last season was night and day from the way that he did the one prior. This ability to perform well on the edges of the strike zone was very important for Valdez, as it gave him a way to get himself into favorable counts on a more consistent basis. He doesn’t have the velocity to easily beat people in the middle of the zone, after all, so finding a way to make things easier on him despite this was a huge factor in his success.
His performance in the shadow zone got better as the year went on as well, culminating in an incredible showing in that area during that Game 6 against the Rays mentioned at the beginning of this story:
This performance by Valdez was a masterclass at living on the edge of the zone. It remains to be seen how repeatable this is for him next season and beyond, but if Valdez can get even close to what he did during this game, he’ll definitely be in good shape.
Even ignoring small sample size randomness from the shortened season, trying to figure out whether or not the 2020 version of Valdez is the one that we will see moving forward is a very difficult task. On one hand, the large amount of hard contact that he gave up — even if a lot of it came in the form of ground balls — was concerning, and the possibility exists that it could come back to hurt him more than it did last season. One the other hand, however, his estimator stats (i.e. FIP and SIERA, among others) mostly came in lower than his final ERA on the year, indicating that he may actually be due for some positive regression in 2021. Either way, there are still some improvements that Valdez can make next season, most notably regarding his scarcely-used changeup. This pitch showed some promising signs (it held hitters to just a .301 wOBA while running a very high ground ball rate) despite being used only 9.7 percent of the time, and if he can find a way to further improve it next year, it would go a long way in diversifying his arsenal.
Ultimately, Valdez’s prospects for this season will hinge on whether he can build on the progress he made as a strike thrower in 2020. His newfound ability to limit walks was the primary reason behind his breakout season, and if he can prove that this wasn’t a fluke in 2021, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him making waves around the league once again.
Photo by Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)