While thought of possibly missing the regular season, Framber Valdez returned to be a key contributor to the ’21 Astros.
The Houston Astros’ franchise has prided themselves over the years with their ability to develop under-the-radar talent and turn them into major-league players. And for Framber Valdez, the left-hander might be the best player development story in the history of the franchise.
The 5-foot-11 southpaw came from the Dominican Republic as an undersized pitcher that was not seen as a top prospect among any of the baseball recruiters. The Astros signed him from the Dominican leagues and brought him to the states squarely because of his raw ability to put spin on the ball.
Valdez went through the Astros’ farm system, worked and perfected on both his mechanics and physique, clawed his way past all the other pitching prospects in the minors and eventually earned is major-league debut in 2018 – an incredible story in of itself.
However, his debut was a mixed bag and it appeared he had plateaued his progress in 2019. Valdez was very up-and-down in all his appearances and many fans (including myself) only saw him as a Triple-A call up who can fill in as an emergency starter.
The 2020 season was a different story. Valdez was named a starter in the shortened ’20 COVID-19 season for Houston and was arguably their best pitcher throughout that season. His command of his pitches tightened up and his curveball became borderline unhittable almost overnight.
Valdez’s play only got better throughout the playoffs – he helped the Astros get past both the Twins and the A’s, and got the Astros within one game of the World Series. Framber left many fans giddy to see what he would do for his sophomore season in 2021.
The ’21 season got off to a slow start when Valdez suffered a finger injury that many feared was going to end his season. However, he was able to expedite his rehab and miss only a few weeks of the season, making his season debut on May 28 against the San Diego Padres where he gave up one earned run and two hits in four innings.
Valdez had a terrific June, where he went 5-1 over his next eight starts. During that time, he logged a 2.98 ERA over 50 innings. Despite his overall solid ERA and impact on the team, some of the numbers were not exactly favorable.
Although Valdez hung around nine strikeouts per nine innings, his walk rate had gone up from 5.1% in 2020 to a scary 11.4% in 2021. His WHIP hovered around 1.25. Time and time again, Valdez would give up singles or walk back-to-back batters, but then manages to get out of jams with ground ball double plays or punching out guys with his curveball.
The second half of the season one wasn’t quite as kind with him as he wasn’t able to get out of those jams as frequently as he did earlier. Valdez finished 4-4 in his last ten starts of the season, including giving up four plus earned runs in three of his last five starts.
Valdez is very much like a Jekyll-and-Hyde type pitcher. His repertoire and his spin rate let him get out tougher hitters and avoids damage with big hits. On the other hand, is command was so erratic in 2021 that he’d walk batters in bunches and risk giving up fire or more earned runs at any minute. Overall, Valdez had a solid season – he ended with a 3.14 ERA and had a career low barrel rate at 5.8%.
The ’21 postseason for Valdez was very much like a microcosm of his regular season. Valdez pitched two very so-so games against the Chicago White Sox game two and against the Boston Red Sox in game one.
His best moment was easily when he was given the ball to start Game 5 up in Fenway with the series title to all. Valdez the mound silenced the Red Sox in eight innings – giving up one run, three hits while striking out five hitters in ripping the soul out of every Red Sox fan at Fenway.
The World Series was rough on Valdez. Perhaps his was gassed from his three starts and forced to pitch Game 1 on short rest, but he really struggled against the red-hot Atlanta Braves. in game one he gave up five earned runs and couldn’t reach the third inning.
Game 5 wasn’t much better as he gave up another five runs including a big Grand Slam in the first inning. Atlanta hitters stayed in the strike zone and Valdez never seemed able to get ahead of counts. Overall, Valdez gave up four home runs in less than five innings in the World Series – yuck.
Despite a disappointing World Series, Valdez established in the regular season and in the postseason that he’s an elite starter in this league. Despite not having elite velocity on his pitches, Valdez remained in the top 15 percentile in both spin rate and barrel rate – something that translates very well for a ground ball pitcher.
2022 will certainly look a little different for the ‘Frambernator.’ Valdez will likely be slotted as the No. 3 starter on the team, behind aces Lance McCullers Jr. and Justin Verlander. For Valdez to really make that next jump to be the number one starter, he’ll have to improve his effectiveness with his fastball (OBA .381 in 2021).
Valdez is amongst the best in the business and getting hitters out when he’s ahead of the count, and an effective first-pitch fastball would only help better his chances of getting more guys out.
I’ll be worth keeping an eye on his command in 2022 – circling back to his walk rate. If his rate continues to stay above 10% in 2022, then we’ll know that 2019 was an outlier and this is just who he is. On the other hand if his walk rate get back down around 5%, then expect Valdez to make a significant jump.