Framber Valdez is making it a three-man race to be the Astros fifth starter.
When Spring Training began, it appeared to me that Josh James and Austin Pruitt were the two frontrunners to be the final member of the Astros starting rotation. But even though those two have pitched well thus far, Framber Valdez has also forced himself into the conversation with a strong start in Grapefruit League action.
Valdez made his second start of Spring Training on Saturday against the Mets and looked good. He pitched 2.2 scoreless frames, allowing two hits and two walks while striking out four. Through two outings, he’s thrown 4.2 scoreless innings with seven strikeouts.
The 26-year-old lefty has plenty of upside, though the results weren’t what he wanted last year. He was good in 2018, pitching to a 2.19 ERA in 37 major league innings, but he worked to a 5.86 ERA in 2019. After a solid first two months in the bullpen, the wheels started coming off in June as he was moved to the rotation.
Now he’s looking to put last season’s struggles behind him and earn another shot as a starter. Even if he doesn’t get the fifth starter job, he should be seriously considered for a spot in the bullpen if he continues to pitch effectively this spring. Having a lefty in the ‘pen is always a good idea.
What’s Right and What’s Wrong
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Comparing his performances in 2018 and 2019, there are a few things that stand out. The first is that his curveball is elite, ranking in the 97th percentile in spin rate. Batters hit just .118 off the curve in 2019 and a meager .098 in 2018.
The rest of his pitches highlight the differences in the two seasons. His sinker, which he uses more than any other pitch, was effective in 2018, as batters hit just .160 off of it. His four-seamer was decent, as opposing hitters worked it to a .250 batting average that year.
In 2019, the average velocity on both pitches actually increased, but their effectiveness went in the other direction. Batters hit .317 off the sinker and .392 off the four-seamer, and hitters whiffed less frequently on those than in the year prior. He started using his changeup more last year, but it wasn’t effective either.
The issue is those pitches straightened out. Both the sinker and four-seamer had considerably less movement, both vertically and horizontally, than they did in 2018. Perhaps Valdez’s attempts to throw them harder resulted in the loss of movement, but in any event, he needs to get them back to their 2018 form.
If he can do that, he has all the tools to be an effective starter. He’s shown flashes of brilliance at times, so the potential is there. But even if James or Pruitt wins the rotation job, Valdez could prove himself quite useful in the bullpen, as he’s held lefties to a .589 OPS for his career, compared to .777 for righties.
***Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Statcast***