Framber Valdez’s Cunning First-Pitch Adjustment

© Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Framber Valdez threw a spectacular game last night. For seven innings, he bewitched, hoodwinked, and otherwise bamboozled the Yankee offense. As Alex Eisert noted, he notched a career high in swinging strikes en route to a whopping nine strikeouts.

How did he manage it? As best as I can tell, he made one key adjustment: he used his wipeout curveball to start at-bats and ended up with 16 first-pitch strikes out of 27 batters faced, plus a weak grounder that turned into slapstick comedy:

It’s particularly impressive when you consider the beginning of his outing: he started six of his first eight batters faced with a ball and looked like he might struggle to find the zone. But he stuck to his plan, and the Yankees, who had taken the first eight pitches they saw, started swinging aggressively the rest of the night.

The first time through the lineup, all nine Yankees took the first pitch they saw. The second time through, five of them swung. The third time through, four of eight swung. They hacked away fruitlessly: those nine swings produced that one dinky grounder, a foul ball, and seven whiffs. With that type of success, Valdez was working from ahead, and if you’re a Yankee fan, you won’t like what happens when Valdez works from ahead.

Why did the Yankees swing so much on first pitches as the night wore on? It’s Framber Valdez on the mound, after all. If you get into an extended count with him, he’ll finish you with curveballs. That book is widely known across the league. His first time through the lineup, the Yankees succeeded in laying off, which should have given them an edge, but Valdez simply regrouped and pumped sinkers at them. That plan led to some hard contact but nothing to show for it, as only Josh Donaldson reached base the first time through.

Still, the Yankees were connecting with Valdez’s sinker, which seemed to embolden them to swing more frequently. I can see why. After all, a take-first approach is often a good plan against Valdez. He’s occasionally walk-prone, though he’s been better this year, and it’s not like batters have done much even when they do swing against him — I don’t know whether swinging at his bowling ball sinker or abracadabra-it’s-gone curve would feel worse.

Last night, though, Valdez’s sinker wasn’t so fearsome. The Yankees put seven sinkers into play their first time through the order, and only three produced grounders. For Valdez, that qualifies as a disaster. I’m not sure his sinker would have graded out any worse on a pitch model last night – playoff adrenaline produced season-high velocity, which naturally comes with less vertical drop – but it was clear the Yankees were squaring him up, with six hard-hit balls their first time through the lineup. Last night, it would seem, was a night for swinging against Valdez, and the earlier the better. Late in the count, you might be swinging at a curveball.

Again, the Yankees took every first pitch their first time through the order. But Valdez and catcher Martín Maldonado saw through that and realized that the Yankees were making solid enough contact that they’d want to swing early. Getting to two strikes against Valdez is never any fun, but when you’re hitting the sinker well, the difference between that two-strike curveball hell and putting a ball in play early is enormous. Any of us would have had the same advice if we were advising the New York hitters: swing at those fastballs while the swinging’s good, boys.

That’s how you end up with swings like this:

Or this:

Or this:

Or like Stanton’s weak grounder that produced that inglorious Valdez pratfall.

All four of those swings came the second time through the order, and they all produced poor results for the Yankees. Valdez ended those at-bats with two strikeouts and two weak grounders. By the time he went through the lineup a third time, the Yankees were thoroughly confused, which is the last place you want to be against one of the best pitchers in baseball. He ended up throwing only seven of his 26 first pitches in the rulebook zone, a career-low rate, while ending up with nine strikeouts and no walks. It’s hard to overstate how out of left field this plan was; he completely avoided the zone and got a pile of first-pitch strikes for his troubles.

Were these early-count curveballs the only thing separating Valdez from a disastrous start? Did this gambit win Houston the game? I don’t know how to measure that. But they seemed to baffle the New York lineup, and it’s hard to argue with the results: the first time through the lineup, he struck out a single Yankee and gave up a raft of scorched contact. The next two times through, he struck out eight and kept the ball on the ground when he did allow contact. The Yankees hit exactly one batted ball 10 degrees or higher those last two trips through the order, and it was a towering popup, 54 degrees off of Aaron Judge’s bat. Valdez had allowed four such batted balls to the first eight batters he faced, as a point of comparison.

If the Yankees regroup in New York, they’ll face Valdez again this series. They’ll likely have to beat him to advance. That will mean figuring out a new plan. His first-pitch curveball ways flummoxed them; he threw the pitch to start 42% of opposing hitters as compared to 24% in the regular season. Their passivity turned into aggression in the worst possible way for them. What he and Maldonado do next time to counter a formidable Yankee lineup will go a long way towards determining whether Houston continues to cruise through the postseason.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Framboozled, Ben. Framboozled.