Astros: How Framber Valdez is pitching like an All-Star

HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 24: Framber Valdez #59 of the Houston Astros pitches in the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Minute Maid Park on August 24, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - AUGUST 24: Framber Valdez #59 of the Houston Astros pitches in the first inning against the Los Angeles Angels at Minute Maid Park on August 24, 2020 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /
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Houston Astros starter Framber Valdez has suddenly morphed into an All-Star.

It’s been a rough season on the injury front for the Houston Astros, especially on the pitching side. Ace Justin Verlander has been out since Opening Day while Jose Urquidy has yet to pitch and Josh James is now on the Injured List, and that’s just the rotation. But one particular bright spot has been the emergence of Framber Valdez.

Valdez is no stranger to Houston fans. The 26-year-old lefthander is now in his third major league season, but he had yet to really hit his ceiling. He did put up a 2.19 ERA in eight appearances in 2018, but he struggled to the tune of a 5.86 ERA in 26 appearances spanning 70.2 innings in 2019. He would show flashes of brilliance, but they would be fleeting.

So far this season in five starts and one relief appearance, he’s 3-2 with a 2.35 ERA and a strong 1.096 WHIP. He fanned 11 hitters in his outing on Monday, with all of those strikeouts coming on his impressive curveball. He did give up four runs in the game, but nobody’s perfect.

How He’s Doing It

This might seem overly simple, but the biggest change is he’s throwing more strikes. He was plagued by walks over his first couple of seasons, averaging around 5.7 walks per nine innings. This year he’s down to 2.1 walks per nine. He’s doing a good job of limiting home runs and has healthy hit and strikeout rates, but the lack of free passes are the biggest change.

There’s never been a question about the quality of his stuff. He has a good mid-90s sinker and an excellent curveball with elite spin rates. When he locates his pitches, he has no trouble being effective. Just look at how he handled this at-bat against Mike Trout.

This illustrates one important thing he’s improved on — throwing first pitch strikes. He’s doing that in a career-best 61 percent of at-bats, and getting a strike on the first pitch is so important. He’s also throwing 53 percent of his total pitches in the strike zone, which is the first time he’s been above 50 percent in his career.

Getting ahead in the count has helped him get batters to chase more, as evidenced by his career-best 25.2 percent chase rate. When he gets ahead, he can use that curveball as his put-away pitch, and it’s extremely effective at that. Batters are hitting only .121 against it, and 32 of his 40 strikeouts this season are on the curve.

What’s also helped is the emergence of his changeup as a legitimate third pitch, as he’d used it only sparingly in the past. He’s throwing it more than 10 percent of the time this year, and batters are hitting .273 off it, which isn’t exceptional but is a vast improvement. Batters teed off on both his change and his four-seamer last year, and he’s largely been able to ditch the latter pitch in 2020.

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The fact that he’s showing he has a quality third offering is what could make him stick as a starter. Being able to command the sinker and curve is important, of course, but if hitters are forced to keep the knowledge of that changeup in the back of their minds, it makes the sinker more effective and keeps them from sitting on one pitch.

Is This Sustainable?

There are some stats that indicate the possibility for improvement or regression. His 38.1 innings this year are still a relatively small sample size, but his opposing exit velocity and hard-hit percentages are the highest of his career and in the 10th or 11th percentile in the league. With that being the case, it’s a little miraculous that he’s kept his ERA as low as it is.

The main culprit seems to be an abnormally high line-drive rate, as 34 percent of batted balls off Valdez are line drives. His flyball rate is considerably lower than previous years, which is why he’s been able to avoid the gopher ball, but hitters have been barreling up his pitches more frequently than in the past. He’s just been a little lucky that enough of them are turning into outs.

The combination of his high exit velocity and his low ERA is not sustainable, so something has to give. I rather doubt his line drive rate will stay that high, so in that sense he could improve. But it’s also difficult for any starting pitcher to maintain a 2.35 ERA, so don’t be surprised if that continues to creep upward.

Still, the fact that Valdez has dramatically reduced the number of walks he’s allowing is a huge step for him. If he can keep that going, he could very well have a place in the Astros rotation for years to come.

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