Opening Day is officially here, which means that the games now count. The Astros are looking to win their fifth division title in seasons and hopefully reach their sixth consecutive ALCS appearance. Of course, it is all easier said than done.
One pitcher key to Houston’s lofty aspirations is Framber Valdez, who will make his first Opening Day start against the Angels later this evening. The lefty, a 2020 breakout, is looking to build off a successful 2021 season when he posted a 3.14 ERA/3.84 FIP in 134 2⁄3 innings. Without Lance McCullers Jr. to start the season, Valdez must have a solid start to the season to help mitigate that loss. This first step towards a quality season begins tonight, and here are three things to watch.
During Valdez’s breakout season in 2020, across 70 2⁄3 innings, he lowered his ERA from 5.86 in 2019 to 3.57. His FIP also featured a similar decrease from 4.98 to 2.85. Why is that? It was due to another reduction, this time in walks. In 70 2⁄3 innings in 2019, Valdez posted a 13.4 percent walk rate in conjunction with a 20.7 percent strikeout rate. Not great, right? But in 2020, Valdez refined his control to the point where his walk plummeted to 5.6 percent while his strikeout rate jumped to 26.4 percent.
Unfortunately, in 2021, there was some regression involved. Not only did Valdez’s walk rate climb to 10.1 percent, but his strikeout rate dropped to 21.6 percent. While his ERA improved last season (3.14), we also know that ERA is highly dependent on factors outside of a pitcher’s control. On the other hand, FIP allows us to isolate the factors that a pitcher can control, such as strikeouts, walks, and home runs. As evidenced by his 4.01 FIP, Valdez wasn’t as efficient as the previous season. In conjunction with the drop in strikeouts, the spike in walks kept him from matching his 2020 prowess. Watch out if he can reestablish the control that made him the club’s de facto ace in their abbreviated season.
In his breakout 2020 season, Valdez threw a first-pitch strike 59.7 percent of the time. Last season, that rate saw a dropoff to 54.2 percent. As we all know, pitchers typically perform better when they’re ahead in the count. The same goes for Valdez, who held opposing hitters to a .176 batting average in 0-1 counts compared to a .435 average in 1-0 counts in 2021. Could some of that .435 average be attributed to bad luck or batted ball fluctuations? Yes. But, in general, Valdez had his best season by BABIP last year (.268) compared to 2020 (.312), although I should also point out the sample size limitations for BABIP. It’ll be encouraging to see if Valdez throws more strikes to start an at-bat as he did two seasons ago. It isn’t necessarily everything, but it at least points to process improvement.
Lastly, I am anxious to watch how Valdez uses his new cutter against the Angels’ lineup. However, there isn’t much information on the pitch, thanks to little Statcast data from Spring Training. It is worth pointing out that his four-seam fastball wasn’t effective last season (.539 wOBA/.470 xwOBA) in limited exposure, so it is possible to see his new cutter take its place as a complementary offering to the remainder of his arsenal.