The 2021 season was a bit of an up-and-down experience for Framber Valdez following his breakout during the abbreviated campaign in 2020. Thanks to a freak finger injury in Spring Training, the left-hander had a delayed start to his season; he also experienced a handful of bad outings in the postseason that was more akin to his pre-2020 performance. Sandwiched in between was a mix of quality starts with the occasional clunker. While the year-to-year change in his ERA hinted at improvement, some indicators pointed to Valdez experiencing his fair share of regression. While Valdez was a perfectly fine starting pitcher, it felt as if he didn’t reach the pinnacle of 2020.
One of the critical questions in my mind before this season was how Valdez would continue to adjust. I had confidence that we’ve seen Valdez’s floor — at least for the intermediate future — following last season, but I was curious if he could take that next step. Would he reach that peak once again or even achieve something more fantastic? While the answer to the latter is still in flux, the former appears obtainable thus far in 2022 based on the results.
Based on ERA alone — not wise, by the way — Valdez is on pace for a career-best season. The same goes for his xERA of 3.13. His FIP and xFIP metrics have jumped to some extent, but not enough to make one think that Valdez has been luckier than before, unlike his 2018 season. More important, however, is his career-low barrel rate of 2.5 percent, which ranks in the 95th percentile in baseball. In fact, Valdez is doing a terrific job of limiting damage done by opposing hitters compared to past seasons, actual and expected.
The interesting aspect of Valdez’s success this season is how he is generating these positive results. We cannot ignore that his strikeout rate — 19.6 percent, which would be a career-low — has dropped for a second consecutive season, even though he is throwing the ball harder than he has in any other season.
We’re used to seeing strikeout rates climb when velocity spikes, so seeing the reverse taking place is something to note. Valdez now throws the ball harder, striking out fewer hitters and allowing more contact, but his results have improved. Opposing hitters are also generating more contact at a 79.7 percent clip compared to 75.4 percent last season. Not exactly a typical approach for any pitcher looking to improve.
So, what gives here?
Valdez has continued to thrive by the type of contact he primarily allows, which is the almighty groundball. His pitch arsenal is designed to generate more groundballs than average, and, thus far, it has worked out since the start of 2020. In fact, there is no pitcher better at generating groundballs this season than Valdez at a rate of 65.5 percent. Out of all qualified pitchers — starter or reliever — Logan Webb has the second-highest groundball rate in baseball at 57.3 percent. There is a more considerable difference in their respective rates at 8.2 percent than between Webb and the tenth-placed pitcher on this list. If the season concluded today, Valdez’s mark would be the highest groundball rate for a single season dating back to 2016.
Then there is his ability to limit walks, which was a real issue from 2018-19, when he regularly had a walk rate of around 15 percent. But the lefty has been able to reign in his control since 2020 and become a more fine-tuned pitcher in the process. One of the issues with Valdez earlier in his career was that he would walk too many hitters and then would surrender contact at the most inopportune times. Those high walk rates were a primary reason his FIP and xFIP in 2018 and 2019 were much higher than they are today. It is also why his 2.19 ERA in 2018 was considered “fools gold” when considering the number of walks he allowed. He just so happened to avoid the big hit to drive those runs in, which kept his ERA low. It was only a matter of time for an implosion, and we saw some of that take place in 2019. That is what made his 2020 resurgence so impressive, as it wasn’t a development that fans necessarily forecasted.
In summary, thanks to his continued dedication to this extreme groundball-centric approach, Valdez can keep the ball from generating loads of damage when he does allow contact, which, in turn, allows the defense to convert those batted balls into outs. One of the better defenses in baseball, I might add. I also wonder how much the extra velocity and the deflated baseball, which is depressing the run environment this season, are giving Valdez an additional advantage. But, in any case, I’ll gladly take the results as Valdez takes that next step.