There is plenty to like about Framber Valdez in 2020, at least on the surface. His performance — 1.90 ERA/2.54 FIP in 23 2⁄3 innings — has helped steady the rocking ship known as the Astros pitching staff. Strikeouts are up and walks are down when compared to his 2018 and 2019 seasons. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is trending close to the previous season, which is interesting in its own right. But Valdez has made some noticeable inroads this year and the results have been mostly positive thus far. For a club with seven rookies on a staff of fourteen pitchers, any positive performance is a godsend.
Framber Valdez Making Inroads
It isn’t hard to theorize that a lower walk rate is largely why Valdez has shown remarkable improvement this season. Out of all pitchers with at least 20 innings pitched in both 2019 and 2020, only Nathan Eovaldi (-7.4 percent) has a larger decrease in walk rate from one season to the next than Valdez (-7.0 percent). Just cutting down on free passes to opposing hitters can greatly improve a pitcher’s performance. Less traffic on the bases generally means good things for a pitcher as it helps limit the damage.
Valdez also altered his pitch repertoire, which is worth discussing. For instance, there has been a bit of an alteration with how often he uses his high-spin curveball and changeup, but relatively minor. More notably, Valdez has made his sinker, or classified as a two-seam prior to 2020, a larger part of his approach, with the pitch itself increasing from a usage rate of roughly 41 percent in 2019 to 57 percent this year. In turn, his four-seam fastball has basically been eliminated from his arsenal, which was probably a wise thing to do considering a .453 wOBA/.401 expected wOBA it displayed last season.
If Valdez continues to pitch at his current level for much longer, and keep his walk rate down, he may soon be considered a breakout candidate in this shortened season. That would be awesome as I like it when a player succeeds. We should all root for that to happen. Plus, for the Astros sake, I also hope that is truly the case. With Justin Verlander and Jose Urquidy still out of action, the rotation will need all the help it can get. After all, we’re still talking about a staff with seven rookies.
But...I have some concerns about Valdez in the long-term. There, I said it. It is out in the open, and I’ll either be praised or ridiculed in due time. But these concerns I have are worth discussing. That increase in sinker usage, for one, is a bit of a red herring when you take a closer look at the numbers specifically for that particular pitch.
Welp, There Is The Sinker
By expected slugging and expected wOBA, opposing lineups should be punishing his sinker way more than they actually are. There is also a 4.4 miles per hour increase between the average exit velocity from last season (90.0 MPH) to this season (94.4 MPH). Small sample limitations exist, especially for average exit velocity, should also be considered. Either way, though, something to watch closely and not a trend one wants to see for a ground ball pitcher with the ball hit harder while his line drive and fly ball rates inch higher.
But the red flags aren’t just limited to his sinker. In fact, the type of contact that Valdez is allowing on all his pitches hasn’t been optimal as he ranks in the bottom second percentile in hard hit rate (57.1 percent) and bottom third percentile in exit velocity (93.3 MPH). For additional context, he has allowed 63 batted ball events this season, 6 of which were considered barrels (9.5 percent barrel rate). Valdez allowed only 11 barrels (5.2 percent) on 213 batted ball events last year. Opposing hitters are also lifting the ball a fair bit more against Valdez as the average launch angle against the lefty has changed from -1.3 degrees to 4.4 degrees in just one year. Sure, the 2020 is still a relatively small sample for a pitcher, but you get the point.
Like I mentioned earlier, I believe a key reason for Valdez’s improvement is the decrease in the frequency of walks. Even if he does allow some hard hit balls, the damage is mitigated if no one is on base. Heck, Verlander and Gerrit Cole made a living last season by keeping the damage to a minimal for most of the season by not issuing loads of walks. But Valdez is living rather dangerously when behind in the count with runners in scoring position as reflected by a .195 wOBA and .306 expected wOBA. Regression is likely at a certain point here, but that only makes it more imperative that he avoids instances when he is behind in the count with runners threatening to score.
There is also the actual baseball to consider, which is reportedly less lively than last season’s or in 2017. This year’s baseball is more akin to the 2018 season by the measurement of drag, if you will. If there is truly more drag occurring with the baseball, that development would also partially explain why offense league wide has taken a hit. Hitters could very well be trying to hit last year’s baseball.
Other various factors are in play along the quick ramp up for the season, but Valdez, as with most pitchers, has probably benefitted from a less lively baseball. Combine that development with throwing less pitches outside of the strike zone, which would help cut down the walks, we can start to piece together why Valdez has been successful thus far. But those red flags are still there and could quickly derail his season if he falls back into old habits. For his sake, I hope that isn’t ultimately the case.