Framber Valdez Is Having a Historic Season by Justin Choi May 19, 2022 © Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports When a batter steps up to the plate against Framber Valdez, there are a couple things that can happen. The first (and most embarrassing) outcome is a strikeout. It doesn’t happen too frequently, thankfully – Valdez’s current strikeout rate of 18.9% is on the low side – but still, it hurts to have stood there without positively impacting the game whatsoever. How about a walk to ease the pain? Valdez isn’t exactly a control artist, and his current walk rate of 10.1% is on the high end. A free trip to first makes for a satisfied hitter – no further explanation needed. But a potentially greater outcome is a ball in play, which constitute 69.2% of Valdez’s allowed outcomes. That’s a lot of contact! Balls in play include outs, certainly, but also the doubles, triples, and home runs that galvanize batters and fans alike. No other outcome is as unpredictable yet rewarding. Based on this, you might think hitters enjoy teeing off against Valdez. There’s one problem, though. So far this season, their collective groundball rate against him is a whopping 69.0%. Their collective fly ball rate, meanwhile, is a mere 6.9%. Not that a grounder can’t become a hit, but without an element of luck, it’s a single at best. And when hitters have attempted to circumvent that issue by swinging for the fences… well, they haven’t succeeded. Valdez has allowed just eight fly balls this season. It’s his world they’re living in. If you’re a FanGraphs reader, this probably isn’t anything new. Valdez has been an outlier for a while now, a remorseless groundball machine. This article doesn’t say what hasn’t already been said about him at least once. But I had to point this out: Highest GB/FB Ratio Since 2002 Pitcher Year GB/FB Ratio Framber Valdez 2022 10.00 Framber Valdez 2021 4.73 Derek Lowe 2003 4.38 Brandon Webb 2006 4.06 Brandon Webb 2005 4.00 Brandon Webb 2004 3.95 Brandon Webb 2003 3.90 Derek Lowe 2006 3.84 Dallas Keuchel 2017 3.77 Jake Westbrook 2003 3.62 Min. 40 IP, starters only In his most recent start against the Nationals, Valdez reached the 40-inning threshold. That made it possible to construct this beauty of a table. Last year, Valdez set the modern record for a pitcher’s groundball-to-fly ball ratio, with 4.73. So far this year, he’s shattered his previous high with a ratio that looks all the more ridiculous in context. There are a bunch of high-3s, low-4s, then the outrageous number Valdez has right now. Historic? Historic. It’s early in the season, but still, this is downright impressive. Truth be told, a lot of that is because of an inflated line drive rate – 24.1%, as opposed to 14.9% last season and 18.3% for Valdez’s entire career. Hitters aren’t quite lifting the ball enough, it seems. And though that might be a residue of Valdez’s excellence, there’s little evidence to suggest certain pitchers are better (or worse) at preventing line drives than others. You could say what Valdez is accomplishing is unsustainable: His off-the-charts groundball-to-fly ball ratio is built partially on the fact that he’s been allowing the worst type of contact, as weird as that sounds. But what I do buy is that groundball rate. After all, Valdez finished last season with an even better mark of 70.3%. And for the most part, he’s stuck to a time-tested game plan this season: throwing downward-moving pitches towards the bottom of the zone. Let’s get a closer look at that repertoire! First, here’s the sinker, Valdez’s primary pitch: A recurring theme is that while Valdez may not appear impressive, his numbers and on-field results suggest otherwise. That pitch won’t appear on any Pitching Ninja compilations, but Valdez’s sinker has all the makings of a classic offering. For one, it drops a ton en route to home plate, which helps with inducing contact on the ground. It’s also fast enough to overcome Valdez’s occasional lapses in command; at 93.8 mph this season, it’s above average for a sinker in terms of velocity. There’s nothing crazy here, but that’s also why it works: Valdez is a yeoman of a pitcher. Not surprisingly, he also throws a changeup, and a nasty one at that. Here it is in action: Again, this is a textbook pitch, especially in conjunction with Valdez’s sinker. The two spin on near-identical axes both at release and at the plate, but it’s the changeup that ends up with extra sink and fade, leaving batters befuddled. If a sinker is a groundball merchant’s bread, then a changeup is his butter. The two go together so well that pitchers have relied on them for decades. At this point, the sinker-changeup combo is almost a way of life. But the changeup isn’t the secondary pitch Valdez relies on most often. That title belongs to his curveball: Every pitcher needs at least one swing-and-miss offering. In Valdez’s case, he’s learned to trust his big, looping curveball. It’s actually the one pitch in his repertoire that isn’t averaging a negative launch angle, but owing to its vertical break and consistently down-and-in placement, his curve is still grounder-friendly compared to other breaking balls. Besides, it’s a small price to pay for a good number of whiffs. Would Valdez’s entire game hold up without them? I doubt it. In so many ways, Valdez is the pitcher he’s always been. But he’s also made small additions that are helping his quest to become the unquestioned king of groundballs. He has a new pitch, for example. It’s a cutter! It’s a slider! It’s… whatever the heck Framber Valdez throws! I’m going to side with PITCHf/x here and peg it as a slider, since that’s what it looks like to me (sorry, Baseball Savant). Here, you can judge for yourself: Right off the bat, that’s a lot of drop – the ninth-most among left-handed pitchers this season, in fact. In contrast, Valdez’s slider features little sweep, which goes against a recent trend. This particular slider shape works in his favor, however. Last year, when I compared Valdez to teammate Cristian Javier, I noted that sliders with the most vertical movement and the least horizontal movement produce the lowest launch angles. It’s still unclear why, but that finding was based on thousands of pitches from hundreds of different pitchers, adding to its validity. Maybe Valdez himself can confirm it: While hitters have only put five of his sliders into play, they’ve all ended up on the ground. The early results have been nothing short of phenomenal. And overall, Valdez is throwing harder than ever before. Is that good for his relentless pursuit of grounders? Absolutely! Faster sinkers tend to produce more groundballs. Faster changeups tend to produce more groundballs. I’m not sure about curveballs, but the principle seems to hold up for sliders as well. It’s often the case that pitchers lose some of their pitch movement after picking up a few ticks, but for Valdez, the trade-off has been minimal. Plus, if you take into account the movement of a pitch relative to its velocity, his curveball is the best it’s ever been. That’s no easy improvement. But beyond the numbers, what I love so much about Valdez is that he’s arguably the only modern pitcher with a full-on commitment towards extreme on-the-ground contact. He’s not like Dallas Keuchel, who’s forced to pray for such contact because his pitches are slow and of dubious quality. He’s not like Shane McClanahan or Logan Webb, whose lofty groundball rates are a byproduct of their strikeout stuff. Rather, he’s a Brandon Webb in the era of high-speed cameras and pitch design. It’s easy to think of him as an anachronism, but I’d argue that he’s actually a product of his time. His new pitch, from inception to deployment, took just an offseason and a few spring training games, and he’s added velocity with ease. There’s probably a version of Valdez capable of picking up more whiffs, if he so chooses. But this is the path he’s taken, and it’s one that’s done wonders for him. Can Valdez keep up his absurd groundball-to-fly ball ratio of 10? Probably not. Remember, we’re at the point in the season where Ryan Helsley has a negative FIP. And as if indicating what’s to come, he surrendered four fly balls against the Nationals last week, a season-high. There’s a good chance he stays above last year’s mark, though, because Valdez looks like an even more effective groundball machine than before. Stuff- and location-based metrics from both Cameron Grove and Eno Sarris confirm the eye test: His command has held steady, and his stuff got a boost thanks to an uptick in velocity and a second breaking ball. When batters step up to the plate to face him this season, they’ll walk some, and maybe strike out a bit more. But above all, they’ll be busy slapping the ball onto the infield dirt and helplessly running to first base. When that happens, just know Valdez is on pace for the groundball-iest season of all-time, with each measly out a step towards greatness.