Last night, Braves hitters had success against Framber Valdez in a way few were able to in 2021. According to Baseball Savant, the Astros lefty allowed 22 barrels in 134 2⁄3 innings, and of those 22, only 10 had an exit velocity of at least 105 mph.
In Game 1 of the World Series, the Braves almost halved that mark in merely two-plus innings, as all four of their barrels off Valdez registered an exit velocity of at least 105 mph. Four of Atlanta’s six runs came via three of those batted balls.
After pitching eight dominant innings against the Red Sox in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series, the Astros’ most important and perhaps most capable starter recorded just six outs against the National League champions, exiting in the third inning after surrendering five runs.
During Game 1 of the Fall Classic, Valdez threw the hardest pitch of his career. At 97.6 mph — per Statcast — it indicated how amped up the 27-year-old starter was in his first World Series appearance. But the location of the nearly-98 mph sinker — in the dirt — represented Valdez’s inability to consistently command the strike zone, which led to his undoing, as well as a 6-2 Astros loss.
A plethora of walks is not what doomed Valdez; it was a tendency to get behind in the count. The first inning encapsulated this problem, as three of the first four hitters Valdez faced got ahead 2-0. Overall, the Dominican native recorded a first-pitch strike — excluding balls in play — 6 out of 14 times, equal to a 42.8 percent rate. In comparison, the league average for True F-Strike rate, which doesn’t factor in batted balls, is 49.8 percent.
The lapse in location resulted in what ended up being the story of the night for Valdez: loud contact, and a lot of it.
Although his exit velocities are normally high, it’s not often that he allows hard contact in the air, as evidenced by an excellent 5.8 percent Barrel rate in the regular season. Tuesday evening, it was a cataclysmic 33 percent.
Atlanta’s lineup teed up the ball early and often. Codify Baseball contextualized just how disastrous an outing it was for Valdez:
Most batted balls hit 105+ MPH in the first three innings of a game this season (including the postseason):— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) October 27, 2021
Boston Red Sox on May 13th: 7
ATLANTA BRAVES TONIGHT: 6
13 other teams/games: 5
The abundance of fly balls and line drives were not unusual for the NL East champions, even with baseball’s top ground-ball pitcher on the mound. Ahead of Game 1, MLB.com’s Mike Petriello highlighted the matchup between Valdez’s extremely high ground ball rate and the Braves’ propensity to lift the ball:
Gametime reading!— Mike Petriello (@mike_petriello) October 27, 2021
Both teams shift a *ton* and are undefeated when outhomering their opponents this month. Framber Valdez has the highest SP GB% rate *ever* ... but the Braves don't hit grounders. It's the biggest battle of G1. https://t.co/UyaDtc8ILL pic.twitter.com/Q1ZX4xVF82
Braves bats won in decisive fashion. The fact that they were able to both lift the ball while downright crushing it against a starter with a historically high ground ball rate illustrated how tremendously effective they were at the plate.
Amid the onslaught, Valdez still managed to induce seven ground balls. But because he seldom instigated soft or even moderate contact, with the seven batted balls’ average exit velocity at 94 mph, only two wound up being outs. Though there was an element of luck in both of Braves second baseman’s Ozzie Albies’ infield hits, the 5-for-7 ratio isn’t terribly suspect when factoring in the collective Expected Batting Average (xBA) of .391.
Since Lance McCullers Jr. is out until 2022, the title of staff ace has been inherited by Valdez. He seemed to earn it when he delivered a phenomenal performance late in the ALCS when the Astros bullpen was utterly spent. At the same time, however, his eight-inning gem in Boston doesn’t necessarily negate what’s now been three ugly playoff outings, with last night’s inflating his postseason ERA to 6.35.
Given the fourth-year southpaw’s elevated role, his volatility has been a distressing trend for a club that needs dependability from the top of its starting rotation. Regardless of how the rest of the series plays out, the Astros will be hard pressed to win the final game of the year — or even be in a position to — without a robust Framber Valdez.