Hunter Brown Is Framber Valdez in a Justin Verlander-Shaped Container

James A. Pittman-USA TODAY Sports

Sportswriters are a miserable bunch. We slog through box scores and transcripts of quotes from practice and write about games that will be forgotten in hours. Then Hunter Brown falls out of the sky.

The Astros’ new starting pitcher not only has a windup like Justin Verlander’s, he grew up outside of Detroit and idolized Verlander as a kid! Can you believe it? That’s a human interest story fit to make J. Jonah Jameson spit out his stogie and forget all about those pictures of Spider-Man.

Even their repertoires look similar: An upper-90s four-seamer thrown about half the time, accompanied by a slider and a curveball. It’s the meat-and-two-sides combo you’ll find at most barbecue joints. There are differences, of course. Verlander throws his slider more than his curve, while Brown is the opposite. Brown also throws everything harder than Verlander does; his secondaries clock in about 6 mph faster than the three-time Cy Young winner’s.

Regardless, people look at Brown and say the baseball equivalent of “he has his mother’s eyes.” So why does Brown perform more like Framber Valdez?

By any standard, Verlander is one of the best pitchers of his generation and a surefire Hall of Famer. But as a matter of personal aesthetic preference, I find Valdez more fun to watch. I’ve always loved sinkerballers, pitchers who use multiple fastball shapes to keep hitters just confused enough that they can’t square the ball up. Power pitchers beat batters up. Sinkerballers tell batters to stop hitting themselves. There’s an archness to this method of pitching, which Valdez embodies as well as anyone in the game.

Which is not to say that brisket, beans, and cornbread can’t be effective. I find a repertoire without heavy changeup usage to be kind of meager. Brown might disagree.

Brisket (Fastball):

Beans (Curveball):

Cornbread (Slider):

In order to understand the difference between Verlander and Valdez, let’s start with an extremely obvious point about pitching. Pitchers want to go up there and strike everyone out. That’s not really an attainable goal for anyone not named Edwin Díaz, but it’s something to aspire to.

Failing a swing-and-miss, pitchers can also influence the kind of contact hitters make. If a hitter guesses timing and vertical location correctly, he’s going to crush the ball. If the hitter times it right but gets vertical location wrong, he’ll make contact but at a launch angle inhospitable to hard contact.

Verlander and Valdez are among the league’s best at inducing weak contact, though they do so by different means. Verlander leans heavily on a four-seam fastball that he uses up in the zone, so when batters miss, they tend to get under the ball. Valdez’s tentpole pitch is a sinker that, come on, let’s not always see the same hands… Yes, that’s correct, it sinks, causing batters to hit the top half of the ball. If you can’t get a swing-and-miss, a pop up or a weak groundball is the next-best thing.

The nature of the contact Verlander and Valdez induce is quite different, but their quality of contact ends up being similar:

Verlander vs. Valdez on Batted Balls, Part I
Pitcher Topped% Under% Barrel% wOBACON xwOBACON
Justin Verlander 36th 5th 13th 1st 7th
Framber Valdez 1st 45th 9th 6th 6th
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Rank Among Qualified Starters (45 pitchers)

And while the results generated by such contact shouldn’t surprise anyone, here are the effects of what Verlander and Valdez did in 2022:

Verlander vs. Valdez on Batted Balls, Part 2
Pitcher LD% LD% Rank GB% GB% Rank IFFB% IFFB% Rank
Justin Verlander 18.5 30th 37.9 107th 19.7 1st
Framber Valdez 17.5 14th 66.5 1st 9.1 74th
Minimum 100 IP in 2022 (140 pitchers)

I do worry that simply calling Valdez the best groundball pitcher in baseball understates things. He is an outlier of historic proportions, as Justin Choi wrote back in May of last year. Valdez led the majors in GB/FB ratio last season. In second place was Giants right-hander Logan Webb. Remember that guy? In the 2021 playoffs he got so many Dodgers to beat pitches into the grass the mole people who live under the stadium thought they were being bombed.

Webb’s GB/FB ratio last season was 2.38. Valdez’s was 4.16. In 2021, Valdez’s GB/FB ratio was 4.73, though he came up about four starts short of qualifying for the ERA title and doesn’t appear on the leaderboard as a result.

Even getting over 3.00 takes some doing. Valdez appeared in his first major league game in 2018. Here’s a complete list of qualified starters who have posted a GB/FB of 3.00 or higher since then:

A Complete List of Qualified Starters With a GB/FB Ratio of 3.00 or Higher, Since 2018
Pitcher Year GB/FB
Framber Valdez 2022 4.16
Framber Valdez 2020 3.08

Back to Brown, the Verlander acolyte. Because they have similar deliveries and at least nominally similar repertoires, they should produce similar outcomes. But they don’t.

In his brief major league experience in 2022, Brown posted a GB/FB ratio of 3.09 and a GB% of 68%. That’s more instructive than looking at something like his ERA, or even his strikeout rate, but it’s important to remember that even including the playoffs, Brown only pitched 24 innings in the majors, only faced 94 batters. That’s not a huge sample.

But if Brown’s high groundball rate is a fluke, it’s one that’s followed him his entire professional career, which comprises 240 1/3 regular-season innings over four years. Brown has never posted a GB/FB ratio under 1.75 in a minor league stop of any length, and counting parts of three minor league seasons and his major league stint, his GB/FB as a professional is 2.21. That would’ve beaten any qualified starter in the majors last season apart from Valdez and Webb.

So what gives?

Let’s start with the fastball. Last season, Brown’s came in 1.6 mph harder than Verlander’s on average, with slightly less spin. Some of the velocity discrepancy is probably down to Brown pitching out of the bullpen, but the two pitches have similar movement profiles. Verlander gets a little more arm-side run on his heater, but the difference isn’t huge.

The fastball location, however, is wildly different between the two pitches. Verlander pounds the top of the strike zone with his fastball to lefties, up and away to righties:

Brown doesn’t do that. He works lower in the zone, and toward two different spots. His fastball usage heat map is probably a little wonky based on his only having thrown 164 last year, but it looks like a pair of lungs:

Just by working lower in the zone, Brown is probably going to induce a few more grounders. And sure enough, he had a groundball rate of 52.4% on his four-seamer, compared to 32.5% for Verlander.

The other difference between Brown and Verlander illustrates the limitations in pitch nomenclature, because it’s truly wild how many different velocities and shapes of pitch fall under the “slider” umbrella. Maybe this can’t be helped, because you know how a hybrid slider-curveball gets called a “slurve?” If you do that with “slider” and “cutter” you get a bad word. So instead, we call two different pitches with hugely different characteristics by the same name. Look at this chart. Does Brown’s slider have more in common with Verlander’s slider, or with Valdez’s sinker?

What Even Is A Slider Anyway?
Pitch Velocity Vertical Drop Horizontal Break Whiff% GB%
Verlander Slider 87.4 mph 31.0 in. 4.0 in. 34.6 39.5
Brown Slider 93.2 mph 24.8 in. 2.8 in. 21.1 77.8
Valdez Sinker 93.9 mph 24.2 in. 14.4 in. 12.1 68.6
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Brown’s slider is as hard as Valdez’s sinker, with equal vertical break but a horizontal movement profile more similar to Verlander’s slider. The difference is that when Verlander throws a slider, hitters see something with a huge difference to his fastball in terms of vertical break and velocity, enough to swing and miss entirely. With Brown, the velocity gap between the fastball and slider isn’t big enough to generate a whiff, and the vertical drop isn’t great enough to generate consistent swings and misses. Merely the next-best thing: hitters just pound the slider into the ground.

We’ll see how Brown adjusts to a full season in the majors, and likely out of the rotation, and whether his usage patterns or pitch characteristics change. But his case, at least so far, illustrates the limits of making player comparisons based on appearance. Not to wave away the Verlander-Brown story, of course, because it’s a delightful anecdote. But while he might look like Verlander, he pitches more like Valdez.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic,, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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1 month ago

Valdez is a compliment to any rookie. He’s one to watch for sure. The physical resemblance thing is fun but meaningless as you say. Avisail Garcia might resemble Miguel Cabrera but doesn’t hit like him. Then of course there’s Taylor and Tyler Rogers. Ozzie and Jose Canseco.

1 month ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

And my favorite fun pair from a different angle – Tony Gwynn and Ichiro. Crazy amount of similarity as ballplayers, but couldn’t be any more lacking in physical resemblance.