Home Sports Houston Astros’ Framber Valdez is MLB’s new ground-ball king

Houston Astros’ Framber Valdez is MLB’s new ground-ball king

by Atlanta Business Journal

By Jordan Shusterman
FOX Sports MLB Writer

On Tuesday against the Rangers, Astros lefty Framber Valdez will attempt to do something only four other pitchers have done in the past century of Major League Baseball: deliver a 22nd consecutive quality start.

Chris Carpenter went on to win the NL Cy Young Award in 2005. Jake Arrieta’s quality start streak began during his historically dominant second half in 2015, after which he won the NL Cy Young. Jacob deGrom won his first two Cy Young Awards in 2018 and ‘19, and if you’re reading this article, I don’t think I need to tell you what Bob Gibson accomplished in 1968.

Are you sensing a theme? 

To be fair, winning the AL Cy Young might not be in the cards for Valdez this season. His teammate Justin Verlander, along with several other strong candidates including Dylan Cease, Kevin Gausman, Shane McClanahan and Shohei Ohtani, will make that pretty difficult. But Valdez’s emergence as one of the more reliable pitchers in the American League should not go overlooked.

On April 19, in this third start of the season, Valdez allowed six earned runs in a loss to the Angels. Since then, he has delivered 21 consecutive quality starts. Now, you might think quality starts are a tad overrated. After all, the minimum line required is three earned runs allowed over six innings pitched, which equates to a pedestrian 4.50 ERA. I am receptive to the notion that quality starts are not the most comprehensive way to evaluate a pitcher’s performance, just as wins are a similarly inadequate measure. 

But it’s not like Valdez has been skating by with an ERA over 4.00 the past four months while managing to keep this streak alive. Of his 21 starts, only two have featured exactly the minimum six innings with three earned runs. More often, Valdez is clearing the quality-start bar comfortably, which has resulted in a stellar 2.47 ERA in 142 innings across the streak. He’s dominating, full stop.

This isn’t entirely new, of course. Despite a broken finger during spring training 2021 that cost him the first two months of the season, Valdez was excellent for Houston last year, posting a 3.14 ERA in 134.2 IP across 22 starts  He carried that momentum into October, where he delivered a brilliant outing against the Red Sox in Game 5 of the ALCS to help clinch another pennant for Houston.

Unfortunately, two poor starts in the World Series against Atlanta ended Valdez’s season on a sour note. Still, by the end of last season, it was clear that he was much closer to a frontline starter than the back-of-the-rotation arm or even reliever he was projected to be during his minor-league career.  

However, unlike the majority of No. 1 starters — his Cooperstown-bound teammate Verlander, for example — Valdez doesn’t diffuse opposing hitters with a barrage of strikeouts. His strikeout rate the past two seasons is 22.1%, a tick below league average. 

So what’s the secret sauce behind Valdez’s unbelievable run of reliable outings? Well, he’s getting ground balls at a rate we haven’t seen from a starting pitcher in decades.

Now, Valdez has always demonstrated a proclivity for keeping the ball on the ground. He was regularly among the league leaders in ground-ball rate at every stop in the minors, and he continued to get grounders once he arrived in Houston in 2018. But this skill has appeared to turn into a more of a superpower the past two years.

For context, when you hear someone referred to as “a ground-ball pitcher,” it probably means his ground-ball rate is something around or slightly north of 50%. This season, those are guys such as Martin Perez at 50.1% and Kyle Wright at 53%. In any given season, the league’s very best ground-ball pitchers might post rates closer to 60%.

Throughout the ‘90s, six-time All-Star Kevin Brown and, unsurprisingly, Greg Maddux were the gold standard ground-ballers. Brown peaked with a 66.3% ground-ball rate in 1996, and Maddux routinely posted high-50s ground-ball rates during his legendary run with Atlanta, peaking at 62.4% in 1995.

The next ground-ball generation included the likes of Tim Hudson, Roy Halladay and Brandon Webb, all of whom crested 60% rates at some point during their peaks. And the high watermark for any pitcher in the aughts came from supreme sinkerballer Derek Lowe, who posted a 66.7% ground-ball rate in 2006 with the Dodgers.

The past decade has seen Marcus Stroman, Luis Castillo and, more recently, Logan Webb carry on the divine art of getting grounders. Perhaps the best ground-baller success story of recent years is one Astros fans are already quite familiar with: Dallas Keuchel, whose league-leading 60.6% ground-ball rate from 2013 to ‘17 included a Cy Young Award in 2015. 

Now that you have a sense of the best ground-ball pitchers of the past three decades, let’s get back to Valdez. Since the start of last season, in 290.2 regular-season innings across 46 starts, his ground-ball rate — the percentage of balls put in play against him that are ground balls — is 68.9%. His 70.1% in 2021 and 67.8% this year are the two highest single-season ground-ball rates among pitchers with at least 100 IP since 1988 (when baseball-reference began tracking the data). The two highest!

Considering that he was getting grounders at a historic rate last season, you might assume Valdez came into this season not needing to change much. But the 28-year-old showed up with two new tricks: a new pitch and more velocity. After relying heavily on his trademark sinker and high-spin curveball the first four seasons of his career, he began to introduce a cutter during spring training.

He has deployed his new weapon about 9% of the time this season and has yielded only five hits with it so far, making it one of the more effective individual pitches in the league, albeit in a small sample. The 1-2 punch of his sinker and curveball remain his bread and butter, but adding a fourth pitch — alongside a changeup he also uses about 9% of the time — has only made solving Valdez that much more of a puzzle for hitters.

Even more exciting than the addition of a cutter is the apparent uptick in velocity, with Valdez’s average fastball up to 94 mph (from the 92-93 range of years past). He has already thrown 78 pitches 96 mph or harder this season, which is plenty more than the 45 such pitches he threw the previous four seasons combined (including playoffs). These upgrades to his arsenal have helped Valdez continue to force batters to pound balls into the ground at a ridiculous rate. 

Postseason baseball is just around the corner, which means Valdez will soon try to utilize his superpower to redeem his poor performance in last year’s World Series. 

Last season, with Verlander out due to Tommy John, Valdez was asked to be the Astros’ bona fide ace. This time, he’ll be one of the more intimidating Game 2 starters around.

Especially for opponents who have any intention of hitting the ball in the air.

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. Follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_.

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