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Something to Watch: Framber Valdez’s Four-Seam Usage

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One start is too little to draw any meaningful conclusions, but you have to keep watching.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Houston Astros Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I wrote about how Framber Valdez’s return was a much-needed shot in the arm for the Astros. While the bullpen remains the primary concern for the club, a healthy starting rotation, in theory, would help mitigate some of those relief issues. Valdez is an important piece to that puzzle, as evident by his encouraging four-inning start against the Padres this past Friday.

One of the areas that I mentioned in that post was watching Valdez’s pitch usage in the coming starts. As we know by now, the left-hander’s success in 2020 was partially derived from eliminating the four-seam fastball from his arsenal almost entirely.

By essentially removing the four-seam from the equation, Valdez addressed one of his more glaring weaknesses. In fact, opposing hitters back in 2018 and 2019 made it a habit to punish the pitch routinely, and it showed in the numbers.

Four-Seam Performance (2018-20)

Season No. of 4-Seam No. RHB No. LHB BA SLG wOBA
Season No. of 4-Seam No. RHB No. LHB BA SLG wOBA
2018 147 101 46 0.250 0.438 0.355
2019 211 133 78 0.392 0.549 0.453
2020 21 17 4 0.000 0.000 0.233

Right-handed batters have historically performed better against Valdez’s four-seam in the past (.316) compared to their left-handed counterparts (.279). But the pitch was noticeably more ineffective when he threw it behind in the count situations (pitcher). For example, right-handed hitters had a .580 wOBA against his four-seam when Valdez was behind in the count. Left-handed batters that season, on the other hand, were generally unsuccessful (.196 wOBA) in the same situation. But that figure skyrocketed to .439 while right-handed batters still had a .529 wOBA in 2019. That is a sub-optimal development for a pitcher whose four-seam usage actually increased when the batter has the advantage in the count.

In other words, Valdez was in situations where he could use a strike and went to his less than effective four-seam fastball anywhere from a quarter to a third of the time. It isn’t a surprise that his overall numbers would improve in 2020 when he steered away from the pitch in general.

But something interesting took place in his first start against the Padres and you can probably tell from the graphs above. Yes, Valdez threw his four-seam fastball at nearly half of his season total from last year. All but one of those four-seam fastballs (nine, in total) occurred when he was trailing in the count. While it is easy to read too much into a single start following a long stint on the IL, it was a development that I wasn’t entirely expecting, considering his success by staying away from the pitch last season. When he did throw his four-seam on Friday, the pitch didn’t perform well (two hits, including one home run).

Valdez’s next start is this Wednesday against the Red Sox at Minute Maid Park. I’m hopeful we’ll continue to see positive results, but I think it is worth watching to see how he does (or doesn’t) utilize his four-seam fastball. It is possible that he didn’t have a great feel for his other pitches (sinker, curveball, changeup) when behind in the count against the Padres last Friday. But that is just my speculation. In any case, let’s pay attention and see if there is a noticeable change in how Valdez operates going forward.