Baseball is back. Spring training is winding down, big-league rosters are taking shape, service-time manipulation is unsurprisingly still a thing, and full-season predictions are permeating across the media landscape.
In one week, the Astros will begin to defend their American League title. Despite the loss of Carlos Correa, the general consensus is that the 2021 pennant winners are again expected to be one of baseball’s elite teams. According to FanGraphs’ playoff odds, the Astros have the second-best World Series odds in the AL, as well as a 70 percent chance of winning the AL West.
There are a number of mainstream story lines that will be closely monitored in Houston during the 2022 season: Justin Verlander’s durability at age 39, Jeremy Peña’s impact at shortstop as a rookie, and the collective output by the club’s youthful center field troop.
These are key developments that could dictate how successful the 2022 campaign will ultimately be for the Astros, but there are secondary items that could also make a difference.
Framber Valdez — No longer just a two-pitch pitcher?
Dating back to 2018 when he made his MLB debut, Framber Valdez has faced questions about his repertoire. He’s long possessed a lethal curveball and a terrific sinker, but he did not have a viable third pitch.
Each spring, it seemed one of the biggest questions surrounding the Astros lefty was how he tinkered with his changeup during the offseason, and each subsequent season, little progress had been made. From 2018 to 2020, he went to it less than 10 percent of the time. Though it generated ground balls, its overall results were quite poor.
That all changed in 2021.
Framber Valdez changeup
Valdez not only threw his changeup more — to the point where it could be considered more than just a show-me pitch — its numbers across the board were markedly better. It’s never been a pitch that’s lacked movement, but it’s firm in terms of velocity — only 5 mph is what separated Valdez’s changeup from his sinker in 2021.
So, what’s the explanation for the improved results? There’s one that stands out from the rest: command.
If that graphic is insufficient, the data backs up the notion, as Valdez located his changeup in the “Shadow” zone — Statcast’s term for the edges of the strike zone, both inside and outside of it — above the league-average rate for starting pitchers.
When it comes to pitch comparison, Valdez’s cambio compares similarly to other quality changeups, namely one: Marlins southpaw Trevor Rogers, whose change is regarded as one of baseball’s best.
Using RotoGraphs’ Alex Chamberlain’s Similarity Scores via his Pitch Leaderboard, the physical properties of each pitch — such as velocity, vertical and horizontal movement and vertical and horizontal release point — are fairly similar. This isn’t to say Valdez’s changeup will end up being as effective as Rogers’, but it does bode well nonetheless.
Going forward, the continued development of Valdez’s overall game will likely hinge on his now-viable third pitch.
Alex Bregman’s swing
A significant aspect of Alex Bregman’s offensive profile is his ability to lift the ball. Because he does not often make especially hard contact, line drives and fly balls are crucial to his success, while ground balls act inversely.
According to Statcast, in 2021, Bregman produced a ground ball rate of over 40 percent for the first time in his career, which coincided with the second-lowest fly ball rate in his six seasons as a big leaguer.
Although he still posted a respectable 115 wRC+, it was far below the two-time All-Star’s career figure of 140. Only his rookie year saw a lower mark (114).
Bregman has been consistently elite in terms of plate discipline and contact skills, but his power output ultimately determines how productive he is at the plate. Because he lacks home run power to the opposite field, he is awfully reliant on pulling the ball.
Bregman pulled the ball more in 2021 than in any year prior. While that might not directly correlate with the uptick in ground balls — examining different components of his batted-ball profile proved inconclusive — it is nevertheless notable.
In June, a strained left quad forced Bregman to miss two months, and soon after the 2021 season ended, he underwent right wrist surgery. It was an injury that clearly affected him late in the season, as he recorded only seven extra-base hits in September and was wholly ineffective at the plate in October. It’s likely that sustaining multiple injuries hampered the third sacker’s ability to produce his usual numbers.
With Correa’s departure, it’s critical that Bregman rediscover his old form. While he’s unlikely to hit 40 home runs again like he did in his AL MVP runner-up season in 2019, upward of 25 should be feasible — provided that he hits fewer ground balls.
The return of (the real) Josh James?
In 2019, Gerrit Cole and Verlander formed an epic two-headed monster atop the Astros rotation. They were arguably the top two pitchers in baseball that year and ranked as such in terms of strikeouts. Cole led the way with Verlander not far behind.
But when it came to the Astros pitching staff, JV ranked third in strikeout rate.
After impressing as a September call-up in 2018, Josh James entered 2019 as one of the key members of the Astros bullpen. Though wild and volatile, the flamethrowing righty was a valuable high-leverage arm, posting a gaudy 37.6 percent K rate, the 11th-best among all pitchers. He was one of just two hurlers to have a whiff rate of at least 50 percent on multiple pitches (slider and changeup), with 2018 AL Cy Young winner Blake Snell being the other (min. 25 results).
Since his 2019 campaign — a season that saw him post a 4.70 ERA (with a 3.04 xERA) in more than 60 innings, James has only logged 22 1⁄3 frames in the major leagues, including just 5 in 2021. After the 2020 season ended, the former 34th-round pick underwent hip surgery. Due to a prolonged rehab, he was limited to just 18 2⁄3 innings at Triple-A Sugar Land before making five appearances with the big club in September, where a substantial dip in velocity indicated he may not have been 100 percent.
While James will not open 2022 on the major-league roster, he might have the most explosive arsenal in the entire organization. Missing bats is paramount for pitchers, and only a handful are more capable in that arena than James when he’s right. It just comes down to throwing enough strikes.
If he remains healthy, it would not be difficult to envision him again occupying a high-leverage role in the Astros relief corps. The volatility notwithstanding, three plus pitches is three plus pitches — few bullpens feature that talented of a pitcher.