Earlier this year, I wrote an article about how red flags were abound for Framber Valdez, who was just beginning to break out en route to a 3.57 ERA across 70 2⁄3 innings. At the time I thought Valdez was going to eventually run into the same issues that ultimately derailed his 2019 season — lots of walks with plenty of hard contact.
Valdez ultimately resolved one of these issues in 2020 — walks — while allowing even more hard contact to opposing hitters. In fact, Valdez finished with the highest hard-hit rate for all qualified pitchers at 48.7 percent during the shortened season in contrast to a 5.6 percent walk rate. But before you get worked up too much, Gerrit Cole was second for hard hits at 44.6 percent followed by AL Cy Young winner Shane Bieber coming in fifth at 43.1 percent. Hard contact doesn’t always translate into suboptimal results as it also depends on the type of contact generated by the pitcher. In Valdez’s case, he is primarily a groundball pitcher with a 60 percent rate — again, the highest in baseball for qualified pitchers — in 2020, which means that opposing hitters are much more likely to drive the ball into the dirt than into the air.
This ascent across various metrics that measures hard contact and its quality (hard-hit rate, exit velocity, etc.) didn’t derail the southpaw’s emergence as an ace for a club already thin on pitching. For the Astros, this development was terrific news. The ability to limit bases on balls across all of his pitches was key, much like Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole in 2019, as that limited the damage opposing hitters could generate against Valdez.
Walks can torpedo a pitcher’s performance. For a pitcher who also surrenders a large amount of hard contact, even if a notable groundball pitcher, sooner or later those walks will eventually turn into the runs. We saw that version of Valdez last year when he posted a 13.4 percent walk rate with 5.86 ERA in 70 2⁄3 innings in spite of a 62.1 percent groundball rate.
The key to Valdez’s future as a top starter is whether he can continue to locate his pitches well. Although he doesn’t possess overwhelming stuff to curb mistakes thrown in the heart of the plate, the lefty made the effort to keep the ball in the strike zone more often, which drove his walk rate way down.
Establishing the edge of the strike zone is important for a pitcher like Valdez, who, as I mentioned in the paragraph above, doesn’t possess the stuff to simply use velocity alone to overcome mistakes. Specifically, it was his ability to use his changeup on the edge of the zone — plus-7.1 percent in 2020 compared to 2019 — that may have helped set up the rest of his offerings. If opposing hitters can’t assume a certain pitch is more likely to finish outside of the zone, then that development opens up the options for Valdez in various count situations. In simpler terms, it keeps hitters guessing at the plate, which is what a pitcher should want.
This newfound ability to limit walks worked wonders for Valdez’s performance. It is a development to watch next season when the season is hopefully longer than sixty games to see if it’ll stick. If it does, the Astros may have an ace on their hands for a while. Considering how the past year has gone for the franchise, Valdez has given this club something to look forward to in 2021.