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Framber Valdez’s return is a much-needed shot in the arm

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Here’s what to watch in the southpaw’s return to the mound on Friday.

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at Tampa Bay Rays Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Arguably their best starter in 2020, the Astros have relatively survived their first 49 games of the season without Framber Valdez. With a 27-22 record as we conclude the month of May, Houston is within striking distance of first place in the AL West as Valdez makes his 2021 debut Friday night at Minute Maid Park. Valdez's return is a much-needed shot in the arm for a roster that has dealt with plenty of pitching injuries since Justin Verlander’s right elbow gave out last July.

The question is which version of Valdez will see upon his return to the mound. The results — for the most part — were encouraging in Sugar Land as he allowed one earned run in seven innings. In fact, 84 percent of his batted balls for the Skeeters were ground balls, which fits within Valdez’s pitcher profile extremely well. Small sample, yes, but it is a trend that we’d like to see. If you need a guide on what to watch with Valdez in the coming days, below are a few things that I am keeping in mind.

Walk Rate

One of the key reasons behind Valdez’s sudden improvement in 2020 was the steep decline in walks allowed. In 70 23 innings back in 2019, the left-hander surrendered 44 free passes (13.4 percent) to opposing hitters. In the same number of innings last season, that walk total dropped to only 16, or a 5.6 percent rate. That is one reason why Valdez posted far better numbers overall and faced 41 fewer batters in 2020 than he did in 2019, even with the same innings total.

Pitches In The Zone

One way to avoid walks is to throw more pitches in the strike zone, and Valdez accomplished that goal in 2020 as we saw his zone rate rise by 2.5 percent to 52.4 percent compared to the previous season rate of 49.9 percent. That contrast looks even starker once you account for his 2018 zone rate of 44.7 percent. By establishing more of a presence in the strike zone, opposing hitters became more mindful of where Valdez was throwing.

Pitch Usage

Valdez is known for mainly two pitches: A curveball and sinker combination that helps drive his high ground ball rate. There is also a changeup in the periphery in his arsenal. But the most interesting aspect of Valdez’s 2020 season wasn’t the pitches he threw the most; rather, it was the one he cut back on. In this case, it was the four-seam fastball, which was nearly dropped entirely from his arsenal, down from 18 percent in 2019 to two percent in 2020. And it was the right decision as evident the pitch was just hammered when used. At this point, it is apparent that Valdez’s best results occur when that four-seam is shelved. Just something to monitor if things happen to turn south again.

It’ll obviously take a fair amount of time to see exactly where Valdez is at upon his return. Expectations are high, but we should keep them in check. Considering how he could’ve missed the entire season due to a fractured left ring finger, it is a wonder that he is starting a major league game before June 1.