Framber Valdez’s walks are up, his strikeouts are down, but his overall numbers remain strong. Following his breakout 2020 that saw him post a 125 ERA+ (100 is average) in 70.2 innings, the Astros’ lefty starter has eclipsed 100 innings in the major leagues for the first time in his career this season, and has a stellar 139 ERA+ through 111 innings to show for it.
Despite the 4 percent increase in Valdez’s walk rate and the 4.4 percent decrease in his strikeout rate, his Expected ERA (xERA) is markedly better, down from 3.82 in 2020 to 3.47 in 2021.
It’s a fairly bizarre development. In fact, according to Statcast, no other starter in baseball has an Expected wOBA (xwOBA) in the top 25 percent while carrying a BB% and a K% that are both in the bottom 40 percent.
The source behind this unusual but productive mixture is a significant change in quality of contact.
Although opposing hitters are putting the ball in play more often against Valdez, it hasn’t had a negative effect. The southpaw’s raw exit velocities remain below average, but he’s in the top 10 percent in both Barrel rate and Expected Slugging (xSLG) thanks to an incredible 70.3 percent ground ball rate, a mark that’s unrivaled across the bigs.
The plethora of ground balls notwithstanding, the upgrade in Valdez’s contact profile is perhaps more substantial beneath the surface. A 3-point decrease in his Barrel rate alone has yielded a terrific Isolated Power (ISO) of .095, the lowest on the Astros starting staff by a fair margin. Additionally, the 27-year-old Dominican native has nearly halved his Dynamic Hard-Hit rate (DHH%) of 2020. It too is the lowest figure among his rotation mates.
Limiting hard contact in the air is key for pitchers, and Valdez’s newfound propensity in doing so is best encapsulated by his Blast rate of 0.8 percent. If that seems low, it’s because it is. Only four starters in baseball have a lower percentage — Walker Buehler, Corbin Burnes, Kyle Gibson and Chris Paddack. That’s rather decent company to be in.
All of these components have helped to net Valdez an elite .309 Expected wOBA On Contact (xwOBAcon). Only Burnes and Lance Lynn rank higher among all qualified starters.
It’s not ideal for any pitcher in this era to be so reliant on inducing contact — albeit relatively harmless contact — but since Valdez has elevated his ground ball percentage to the extreme, perhaps there aren’t any valid sustainability concerns, or at least any traditional ones, especially when accounting for the Astros’ remarkable defense.
Considering how unique Valdez’s profile is, it’ll be fascinating to see how he fares the rest of the regular season and, presumably, how his altered game translates to the postseason.
The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant, Pitch Leaderboard and Baseball-Reference