It’s no secret that Framber Valdez has struggled with control over his last five starts for the Houston Astros in July. Valdez’s first start didn’t come until May 28th vs. the Padres in Houston due to a fractured finger, and on that day, he threw four innings, giving up two hits and a run, while striking out four and walking two.
Valdez found his stride in his first four starts of June, going at least seven innings in each, never allowing more than six hits, three earned runs and three walks in any of those outings, and winning all four.
Things began to change a bit in Valdez’s final start of June, on the 26th of the month in Detroit, where he only lasted six innings, and gave up three earned runs in a loss. There were no walks that day against the Tigers, the last time we’d be able to say that to date.
As the calendar turned to July, the innings decreased, while the walks increased seemingly exponentially. There were five walks in seven innings in Cleveland, two in five innings against Oakland, six in only four innings against the Yankees, two in 6.1 in Chicago against the White Sox, and six more against the Rangers in his last outing.
While the trend of walks didn’t begin immediately after MLB’s crackdown on sticky substances, Framber’s numbers before and after this date (June 21) are remarkably different. Prior to the crackdown, Valdez had a 1.67 ERA, a WHIP of 0.99 and had allowed only 23 hits and nine walks in 32.1 innings as he cruised to a 4-0 record.
Was 2020 just an outlier and are we seeing the real Framber Valdez?
Beginning with the start on June 26th Valdez has an ERA of 4.19, a WHIP of 1.57 and has given up 33 hits and 21 walks in 34.1 innings and gone 2-2.
Diving into Valdez’s pitch tracking on baseballsavant.com, one pitch immediately jumps out as a problem: Changeup. Opposing batters are batting .333 and slugging .604 against the pitch that Valdez uses 19.3% of the time, while smashing four home runs on 45 batted balls.
Generally, I take the 2020 numbers with a grain of salt and while that should be applied here, in Framber’s case that’s all we have to compare 2021 with as far as pitch tracking goes, and with that in mind Framber is throwing the changeup twice as often as he did in 2020.
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Valdez’s sinker, the pitch he uses most often (40.6%), is also being hit for a .300 average, though with less power than the changeup. The left-hander has one pitch working and that’s his curve, which opponents are batting .089 and slugging .122 against with a 43.1% whiff rate.
The curve has been lethal, but Valdez is throwing his best pitch about three percent less this year, while throwing a pitch that’s getting smashed twice as much. But, why all the walks? I’m not sure, but here’s a hypothesis: The 2020 BB rate of 5.6% is an outlier and not likely repeatable.
In 2018 Valdez’s BB% was 15.6%. In 2019 it was 13.4% on and this year it’s 10.5%. For his career its 10.8%. Valdez has lowered his BB% each year in the big leagues, but maybe the 5.6% of 2020 isn’t a realistic long term goal.
Maybe this is the real Framber Valdez. One with ups and downs, good streaks and bad, and eventually a BB% in the 10% range that will improve incrementally over time. We’d all prefer consistency and to know what we’re going to get each time Valdez takes the mound, but the truth is baseball players, even major leaguers, chase consistency their entire careers.
Some find it, while others spend their careers chasing it. I’m not sure when it’s too late to hope for a lower walk percentage for a major league pitcher, but Valdez is 27 and has thrown 3,905 major league pitches. My guess is that, while there could be incremental improvement as Valdez learns to pitch at the big league level, this is largely what he is at this point in his career. Consistently inconsistent.