Strikeouts, walks, and home runs have been points of emphasis for the past few years of baseball. This is for good reason, as they focus on the core battle between the batter and pitcher without any regard for the defense behind them. This development has largely made it far easier to determine, in simple terms, which players are good. This has been especially valuable in determining that players like David Fletcher and Raimel Tapia are far less valuable than they may have appeared in years past. However, Astros pitcher Framber Valdez defies these principles and continues to be effective regardless.
Framber Valdez entered the realm of MLB as a Dominican 21-year-old international free agent. That alone should have made it impossible for Valdez to reach the major leagues, much less make a sustained impact considering that most of his country’s amateurs are 16 when they sign, 16 being the age Valdez first pitched. Nevertheless, he was spotted by an Astros scout, and it only took six pitches for him to earn a tryout, a $10,000 signing bonus, and a chance.
Valdez had a somewhat traditional path to the majors from that point, as following just under four seasons of above-average play, he was called up to the big leagues on August 21, 2018. Valdez was sensational in his abbreviated stint with Houston, as he posted an ERA of 2.19 over 37 innings. Even in this short sample size, Valdez’s unorthodox style of play became apparent, as he induced negative launch angle, something no other pitcher did that season.
2019 was not good for Valdez, as he regressed to a below-average level in nearly every statistic, with his opposing launch angle still being elite. This caused him to split time between MLB and AAA, as he was below replacement level. However, with the 2020 season came a marked shift in Valdez’s pitch selection, as his sinker usage increased by over 10%, allowing him to play into his groundball pitching more than he ever had, and thus pitch far more effectively. This shift allowed for Valdez to break out in 2020, as he posted a 3.57 ERA and 1.12 WHIP, a season that resulted in an 11th place finish in that year’s Cy Young voting.
In 2021, Valdez proved wrong any arguments surrounding 2020’s small sample size as he replicated his electric performance from the previous season. However, his statistics, which included a 3.14 ERA and 2.5 WAR over 134.2 innings, were not backed up by high fastball spin rate, velocity, or even inducing weak contact like most other high-level pitchers. In particular, he was in the 9th percentile of Average Exit Velocity and 11th percentile in chase rate according to Baseball Savant. Those numbers usually don’t result in high production, as Zach Plesac and Garrett Richards, who were similar in the aforementioned peripherals, had a pedestrian performance in 2021. As such, Valdez’s production came as a result of one thing, his extremely high ground ball rate, which sat at over 70% in 2021.
His high ground ball rate is best explained with his Sweet Spot percentage (SwSp%), which sat at 21.4%, best in baseball by over 4 percent. Furthermore, Valdez, as previously stated, makes heavy use of a sinker, a pitch designed to induce groundballs. What sets Valdez’s sinker apart, however, is his elite mixture of vertical movement and velocity, with the only starter matching him in both of these areas being Logan Webb, who is by all measures elite.
Valdez’s ZIPS projections have him skyrocketing to a 4.00 ERA in 2022. However, I’d be willing to bet that it will be considerably lower and that most projection systems simply do not value his skillset. Furthermore, his statistics were not hindered by MLB’s ‘sticky stuff’ crackdown nearly to the extent of other pitchers, with some of his stats even improving in the second half. So, even though almost every scout, projection, and peripheral would have you believe that Valdez is nothing more than average, his unorthodox skill set still makes him special.