The Astros enter their seventh straight AL championship series this weekend. As a prelude, I will focus on two important pitchers in this series. One pitched worse than expected in the ALDS, and the other pitched better than he had in second half of the year.
The two pitchers are Framber Valdez, generally viewed as a co-ace of the pitching staff, who pitched poorly in Game 2, and the other is Ryan Pressly, the closer, who was almost perfect in the ALDS.
Valdez had a record as one of the most consistent starting pitchers in baseball last year. Although Valdez has been reasonably good (3.45 ERA, 1.12 WHIP) in 2023, his performances have been more inconsistent in the second half of 2023. He has experienced highs (like his no hitter) and lows (game score of 20 against the Rangers on Jul. 28) from game to game.
Valdez had a clunker starting Game 2 of the ALDS. His game score was 31, which is quite poor. His 10.38 ERA was 7th worst among 26 starting pitchers in the division series this year; it would have been worse, except that the Dodgers and Orioles had clunkier games when they were swept by the Diamondbacks and Rangers. This, however, was not the worst game score of Valdez’s post season career, since he posted game scores of 21 and 29 in Game 1 and Game 5 of the 2021 World Series.
What we don’t know is whether this is just a continuation of game to game inconsistency, with Framber likely to rebound in the ALCS.
Valdez’s pitching since Aug. 1 has been good (3.45 ERA and 3.50 FIP), but marked by a few bad games. From August 25 to Sept. 16, Valdez rolled off five consecutive quality games, with an average game score of 65 and allowing an average batting average of .180 and an average OPS of .556. But his final two games of September were significantly worse, with an average game score of 42, an average SLG% of .428, and an average OPS of .828. The pattern of those two final games continued into the ALDS start, which was driven by a .462 BABIP. In fact, Valdez may have experienced a string of bad BABIP luck, with a .400 BABIP in the final two games of September increasing to .462 in the ALDS.
- I have previously written about Valdez’s league leading exit velocity, and surmised that his ground ball rate (which declined in the second half of the season) determines how well he can suppress the results of hard hit balls. The high exit velocity was an issue in his ALDS start. His 57% hard hit rate was 3d highest among division series starters (Kershaw with 85% hard hit rate—yikes!). Valdez’s ground ball rate was not the problem—his 63% GB rate was tops among division series starters. Grounder tendencies can only go so far in suppressing the results of high exit velocity. BABIP misfortune can allow grounders and line drives to get through. Although Valdez allowed high exit velocity, he allowed no barrels. Barrels are an ideal combination of exit velocity and launch angle, which frequently end up as home runs. It would appear that Valdez suppressed the launch angle enough to avoid even worse results in the ALDS.
- Earlier in the season, we theorized that Valdez sometimes throws the sinker too hard, resulting in too little movement, contact too high in the zone, and a reduced ground ball rate. However, that does not appear to be the problem in the ALDS start. It’s a fairly small sample to evaluate, but the Stuff+ and Location+ results for Valdez’s sinker appear to be fine.
- To a significant extent, Valdez had difficulty commanding / controlling his breaking pitches, which may have been the source of his problems in the ALDS. The Location+ model indicates that his ability to locate the curve ball and cutter was problematic. The curve ball is normally Valdez’s best pitch and he uses it mostly against RHBs. The cutter is a pitch he can use against both LH and RH batters. The Location+ for both pitches decline from 98 for the last two months of the season to the mid-80’s in the ALDS game.
- Although Valdez had a decent strike out rate in the ALDS game, his BB/9 of 6.23 was almost twice his normal rate—which is consistent with the indications of poor breaking pitch command. Hopefully, the command issues are just an aberration and won’t continue into the ALCS.
- I also wonder if the extensive (almost two weeks) time off between his last regular season start and the ALDS start could have affected Valdez’s command in a negative way. Framber’s pitching splits indicate that his pitching results are much better on regular 5 day rest as opposed to either short rest or 6+ days rest. Admittedly this could just be a small sample size effect, but the B-Ref splits are shown below.
Given the time off between the ALDS and ALCS, Valdez will again start with more days of rest than normal—-but not as lengthy as the rest before the ALDS.
I think it’s possible, maybe likely, that Framber responds with a game in the ALCS that is more similar to the five games before the middle of September, in which he posted an average game score of 65. But, given Valdez’s inconsistency this season, it’s hard to make a prediction.
Ryan Pressly, the Astros’ closer, has a spectacular pitching record in the post season. Personally, I would have favored Pressly as the MVP of the 2022 World Series. But Pressly had a rough second half of this season, with a 5.19 ERA. But Pressly had been tough on hitters during the last two weeks of the regular season (.125 batting average and .451 OPS). And the “post season Pressly” seemed to show up on schedule for the ALDS. He had six up and six down, with five strike outs.
Rather than me doing the analysis, I wanted to highlight this fine article by Ben Clemens at Fangraphs, which discusses Pressly’s strategy in the ALDS. He notes that Pressly’s defining difference compared to other closers is a reliance upon four quality pitches (much like a starter). He isn’t a scorching high velocity pitcher, like most closers.
He describes Pressly’s repertoire: “all of his pitches are great. His fastball gets more ride than you’d expect and has virtually no east/west movement. His bullet slider comes in at 90 mph and has a little wiggle in it. His curveball? It drops off the face of the earth with nasty two-plane break. Even his changeup is great; it mirrors his slider velo-wise but fades more than a foot in the opposite direction.”
According to Clemens’ article, the Twins’ batters have an unusual approach on two strikes which includes a willingness to take third strikes in the zone. In return, they don’t chase and can slug big time in the two strike count. In response, Pressly changed his approach up—essentially pitching backwards and using his pitch repertoire to record in zone strikes, rather than try to entice swings outside the zone. Read the article for a more detailed explanation.
Clemens notes that Pressly’s novel approach probably does not work against the Rangers, who will attack in-zone breaking pitches. But it’s Pressly’s repertoire of multiple pitches which makes it possible for him to develop a different plan.
This article continues with updates regarding the playoff odds. The regular Fangraphs playoff odds model places the probabilities of winning the ALCS at 60.5% for the Astros and 39.5% for the Rangers. The ZIPS game by game model provides a more precise estimation, based on pitching match ups. However, those model results are not yet published.
However, Dan Symborski, creator of the ZIPS model, wrote a Fangraphs article which provides “very preliminary results.” One of the unknowns is whether the Rangers will have Scherzer and Gray back from injuries. His article shows a 59.8% series win probability for the Astros if Scherzer and Gray are not available. The Astros’ odds decline to 55.8% if both pitchers are available to start in the ALCS.