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A Couple of Pitching Thoughts and Concerns

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MLB: Cleveland Guardians at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Typically, I have a couple of saved files full of notes about different players. Sometimes I expand on these notes further and making a full length post out of it. Other times I scrap it due to it not really being much of anything. That said, today’s post is what happens when I find myself unable to delete it off my laptop or make it a single article. Odds are high that I’ll explore the latter once the season is over and we see how the second half shakes out. But I do want to share at least a couple of observations about a pair of Astros’ pitchers who have had reversed fortunes this summer.

Framber Valdez

To say the least, Framber Valdez’s recent downswing has become unsettling. Well, minus that no-hitter against the Guardians and Friday’s start in Detroit. The no-hitter was awesome while his performance against the Tigers was somewhat encouraging. I mean, five walks is never great, especially against a club with an 88 wRC+ on the season. Alas, those kinds of outings have been more like outliers lately.

The Astros’ fortunes, for better or worse, hinge on Valdez’s performance. If you haven’t already, I recommend checking out Chandler Rome’s report in The Athletic last weekend about the situation. One item that caught my eye was the mention of Valdez’s sinker and the sheer number of issues he’s lately had with it. As noted by Rome, the left-hander’s sinker isn’t breaking as much vertically this season (20 inches on average) compared to last season (24.2 inches on average). He’s also throwing it harder compared to past seasons along with experiencing some issues with its location inching higher in the zone.

As we already know with Valdez, he will never win an award for limiting hard contact. But it is largely intentional as sinkers, when optimally located, are designed for that purpose, with the intent that the hitter would simply drive the ball into the ground. Groundballs are, after all, the least valuable kind of batted ball for a hitter. The exit velocity on an optimal sinker driven into the ground doesn’t matter that much. While his secondary pitches deserve their credit, the bulk of Valdez’s success depends on his sinker. It is the foundation of his pitch arsenal.

But when his location is off and the hitters know it, then we can expect to see something like this chart below. Average launch angles are sometimes misleading but, in Valdez’s case, I think it illustrates his current plight well.

Something to watch: Valdez’s sinker against the Tigers averaged around 94.7 MPH, a 0.7 MPH decrease from his season average. It is worth keeping an eye on whether Valdez takes a little something off of the sinker in the future in exchange for perhaps better control. Sometimes less is more, if that makes any sense.

J.P. France

Considering France’s debut up until his disatorous start against the Red Sox earlier this week, I’ve been thoroughly impressed. While he doesn’t possess a pitch that truly stands out, his entire complement of pitches works well with one another. His four-seam fastball works as the base with a 46.4% usage rate against right-handed hitters and 36% against left-handers. Against right-handers, you’ll likely see a combination of his cutter and sweeper mixed in while left-handers see more changeups and curveballs. But France’s profile lacks one key element, which I’ve written about before: Swing-and-miss material.

France is definitely on the lower end in this regard, with a 9.3% swinging strike rate. Up until that Boston start, he was the only qualified pitcher with a single-digit rate and a sub-3.00 ERA. Even with his ERA climbing from 2.75 to 3.51, he still has a fairly low ERA for that low of a swinging strike rate. But due to his profile and how he pitches, the right-hander has found success in generating called strikes, with a 17.7% rate. Of all pitchers with at least 110 innings pitched, France is 19th in this metric. While the lack of swing-and-miss stuff is rightly a concern, he mitigates it in other areas. This is one reason why he may continue to outperform his peripherals to some degree, although I am confident it won’t be with a sub-3.00 ERA on a consistent basis.

That said, France was primed for some regression and we recently saw one round of it. Hopefully he got it all out of his system for a while. But his profile is actually interesting and his starts are mostly fun to watch. In this age when pitchers throw harder and having red dots all over your Statcast percentile rankings is all the rage, I tend to appreciate the outliers like France. It makes baseball unique again.