Written by: Max Cutler
The Astros’ Framber Valdez has thrived this year, pitching to the tune of a 2.66 ERA over 115 innings. Valdez defies the traditional mold of a dominant starting pitcher in 2022, striking out only 7.98 batters per nine innings, a rate that is in only the 44th percentile, and even lower for starting pitchers.
Only three other qualified starters have an ERA as low as Valdez’s while striking out fewer batters (Sandy Alcantara, Miles Mikolas, Martin Perez). Unsurprisingly, Framber’s whiff percentage and chase rate also rank below the league average, at the 37th and 35th percentile, respectively.
So what has the left-hander from the Dominican done to keep opposing offenses at bay?
Keep The Ball On The Ground
This isn’t new for Valdez. For his career, the 5’11” hurler has a 66.4% ground ball rate. To put that in perspective, since 2018 (when Valdez entered the league), he ranks first in the category– and it’s not even close.
Coming in at second is known ground ball pitcher Dallas Keuchel… at 54.9%. This 11.9% difference between No. 1 and No. 2 is the same gap you see from Keuchel to Zach Eflin, who ranks 43rd in GB rate over that same time span. That’s a gap that’s almost hard to fathom.
It shouldn’t surprise you that Valdez also has ranked first in average launch angle every single year since 2018. In fact, in the Statcast era, Framber Valdez is the only starting pitcher to ever record a negative average launch in every year he’s pitched.
And one more to make sure you can really wrap your head around just how many grounders Framber induces: He has the lowest ground ball rate of any starting pitcher… wait for it… ever. He’s truly an anomaly.
How Does Valdez Get So Many Grounders?
Valdez’s pitch mix itself is not out of the ordinary. He’s primarily a sinkerballer, who throws cutters against lefties, changeups against righties, and curveballs against everyone, although he prefers it against right-handers.
Let’s talk about that sinker, Valdez’s bread and butter. He throws it 51% of the time, making it his favorite pitch regardless of the handedness of the batter he is facing. It’s been his best pitch this year, good for a -8 run value, after a -9 last year and -4 in 2020.
It gets 3.3 more inches of downwards break than the average sinker does. That’s the second-most of any left-handed starting pitcher in baseball (Dallas Keuchel is first. Sense a theme here?).
However, that’s not leading to a ton of whiffs or strikeouts – his 13% put away rate (defined as the rate of two-strike pitches that result in a strikeout) is rather pedestrian when compared to other high-run value sinkers (Clay Holmes, 22%, Chris Bassitt, 27%). It doesn’t spin more than others, either. What Valdez’s sinker does, at average velocity of about 92-93 MPH, is go right underneath the hitter’s barrel. Valdez’s superb control allows him to stay in the shadow area in and around the bottom half, leading to tons of ground balls.
The secondary pitches off of the sinker truly leave hitters frustrated. His curveball ranks in the 90th percentile of spin, and hitters are batting just .148 against it this year. That pitch gets tons of whiffs (41%), as hitters are left befuddled by Valdez’ extra spinny curve. This pitch has more vertical drop than any other lefty curveball in baseball. The same can be said about his changeup – no starter’s change drops more than Framber’s.
Instead of getting repetitive about how much all of his pitches drop, let’s move onto why that’s worked so well.
No Correa, No Problem
The Astros lost star shortstop Carlos Correa this offseason to the Minnesota Twins, who signed the slick infielder to an opt-out laden three-year, $105 million deal. Despite losing Correa’s 49 Outs Above Average from 2018-2021, which ranked third of all MLB shortstops, rookie Jeremy Peña has filled in brilliantly.
The 24-year-old has 7 OAA this year already, ranking behind only Nico Hoerner of the Cubs for the best mark in the sport. The remainder of the infield, which includes Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yuli Gurriel, and sometimes Aledmys Diaz, has not been excellent this year (-5 OAA combined). Throughout the first four years of Valdez’s career, though, the trio combined for 20 OAA, helping Framber’s cause.
Beating the xOdds
One look at Framber Valdez’s expected statistics might make you think, “well, he’s bound for some ERA regression”. And that would be a fair, and maybe even wise thing to think. An ERA of 2.66 with an xERA of 3.22 does, usually, mean slight regression is inbound. But let’s dive a little deeper.
Last year, Valdez’s ERA was 3.14, and his xERA was 3.81. Well, maybe he just has been getting lucky, and that infield defense really helps him. Or, maybe not.
The xERA formula takes earned runs out of the equation, and instead uses hits allowed, walks allowed, home runs allowed, and strikeouts. As we know, Valdez is not the most strikeout-reliant pitcher. However, he has struggled with walks. The southpaw has lowered his career BB/9 to 3.86 this year, by walking only 3.13 per nine. That number is still, however, below average (41st percentile).
What has allowed Valdez to work around these walks has been inducing a career-high 13 ground ball double plays, good for sixth in the majors. Unsurprisingly, other sinkerballers dominate the top of the list, with some familiar names like Sandy Alcantara ranking above Valdez.
Framber Valdez has made a career out of throwing pitches that drop more than just about any other pitcher in the sport. This year, the results are better than ever. Valdez’s generational ability to induce ground balls has worked wonders for the Astros, and it would behoove Houston to keep him in the rotation for as long as possible.