Framber Valdez had a bad start on Monday. Over just four innings of work, he allowed four runs, all earned, thanks to a seven-hit barrage and two walks. Hey, that’s pitching. Everyone has bad games – or sometimes the hitters have good games. Eight of the 10 best starters in baseball this year, as measured by WAR, have already had a game where they allowed four or more runs. That’s also true for 17 of the top 20. We’re not that far into the season, but everyone has blowups from time to time.
That’s true… for everyone other than Valdez. He’s a machine. This is only the sixth start he’s made since the beginning of the 2020 season that didn’t last at least five innings, and he’s made 72 starts in that time. He set an all-time single season record with 25 straight quality starts (at least six innings pitched, no more than three earned runs) last year. He doesn’t get roughed up early and depart. He doesn’t allow a pile of runs. He’s on a truly remarkable tear, and I wanted to put some context around it.
To come up with a fair scale, I leaned on game score, a statistic created by Bill James and updated by Tom Tango that tries to distill each start into a single number. Fifty is average. Forty is replacement level. Seventy means a great game, and 90 a truly transcendent one. It’s a blunt tool, but it’s a useful way to explain how consistent Valdez has become.
When it comes to avoiding replacement-level starts, Valdez is one of the best in the business, as you’d expect. Across 2022 and 2023 combined, 143 pitchers have made at least 20 starts. Only 11 have put up clunkers – 40 or below on the game score scale – less frequently than Valdez’s 10% mark, four in 40 games. It’s rare company – Shohei Ohtani, Justin Verlander, Max Fried, Shane Bieber, Jeffrey Springs (he’s great!), and Logan Webb are all just ahead of Valdez. Pitchers you probably think of as blowup-proof, like Aaron Nola and Sandy Alcantara, trail him.
Even established starters – if you’ve made 20 starts in the big leagues since the start of last year, you count as established in my book – turn in sub-replacement starts frequently. Indeed, 23.5% of starts by this established group were below replacement level. It’s like I said – some days, pitchers just don’t have it. Even if you set the bar for replacement level lower – at 35, or 30 – Valdez is in the top 15 among starters. He just doesn’t have those bad days.
But I’ll be honest with you: I wouldn’t be writing about Valdez if he were merely one of the 15 best pitchers in baseball when it comes to avoiding disastrous starts. There’s so much more to it than that. Another helpful definition in game score is the average start – 50 on that scale is a league average start. You’d expect good pitchers to deliver average or better starts frequently, and indeed they do. Roughly 60% of starts by this group turned out average or better. First place on that list is Verlander, with 27 of his 31 starts since the start of 2022 average or better. Second? It’s Valdez, with 34 of 40, or 85%. It’s true even if you reset that bar to 55, an above-average start: Verlander is the best in baseball, and Valdez is second.
I understand that this stat isn’t impressive out of context. But let’s just put it in plain English: Valdez is as good as any pitcher in baseball at giving his team a chance to win. Everyone is unhittable on some days, but baseball is a marathon rather than a sprint, and Valdez is built for it. Good pitching isn’t just about high highs; it’s about avoiding low lows. You might think that a great pitcher – say, Spencer Strider or Zac Gallen – gives their team a chance to win every time out. That’s true. But as great as each of them are, they’re turning in above-average starts less frequently than Valdez (82% of the time each, to be specific).
My cutoff point, of course, is arbitrary. Raise the bar to a 65 game score (example: 6.1 IP, 10K, 2BB, 1HR, 2ER) and you’re getting into rarefied air. These are the starts that you remember for weeks, and Valdez can’t match Strider and Gallen there. They’re two of the top three in baseball by that mark, along with Verlander. Valdez has only hit double digit strikeouts three times in the past two years; he’s more steady than high-ceiling.
In a nutshell, the arbitrariness of these cutoffs is why we don’t use game scores to determine who the best pitchers are. Is it most games above 50? Fifty-five? Fewest games below 45? Game score is more of a neat tool for telling a story than a way to isolate which pitcher is the best. But if you’re looking to tell a story about Valdez, it’s quite the evocative statistic. He’s solid, perpetually, and the data show it.
The fact that he’s reached this point is remarkable when you consider Valdez’s early career. He’s always had an outrageous sinker; he’s getting more than three grounders for every fly ball this year, second only to Alex Cobb in the majors, and that would be the lowest GB/FB ratio of his career by a huge margin. But that sinker used to come with intermittent command problems; in his first four years in the majors, he walked 10.6% of opposing batters.
Walking a lot of batters is no way to rack up so many solid outings. It both shortens a pitcher’s time in the game and makes any subsequent batted balls more dangerous. So Valdez simply stopped walking people. He only walked 8.1% of opposing batters last year, and he’s down to 5.2% so far this year, a tremendous improvement. How’d he do it? Pretty simple:
More Zone, More Success
Right, if you have an absolutely overpowering pitch, the kind that gets a downright silly number of grounders and holds opponents to a .430 slugging percentage when they put the ball in play, you should just throw it in the zone. That’s Austin Nola levels of power, or Adam Frazier, or Victor Robles. That’s what opposing hitters get if they’re lucky – they might just as easily foul the pitch off or take it for a strike. It’s no surprise that throwing it in the strike zone works.
Of course, throwing only a fastball and throwing it in the strike zone frequently isn’t a sufficient game plan. Sometimes you have to strike hitters out, and again, Valdez has always had the tools to do that. His curveball is one of the best in baseball, a huge 12-6 hook that consistently leaves batters flailing. If you’ve been trying to deal with a bowling ball sinker all day, you don’t have much of a chance to adjust to this:
It gets even better – or worse, if you’re a hitter facing Valdez. He’s always had that tremendous sinker/curve combination, but he wasn’t satisfied with that. His curveball displays reverse platoon splits; its shape gives righties fits, but it’s so different than his sinker that lefties seem to pick it up slightly better (armchair analysis, don’t quote me on this one). So he stopped throwing his curve to lefties and added a harder breaking ball instead, alternately called a cutter or slider depending on your pitch classification system.
In 2020, his breakout season, Valdez went to the curveball 42% of the time against opposing left-handers. This year, he’s using it only 4.8% of the time, and he’s throwing his cutter a whopping 48.2% of the time. Righties, against whom the curveball has always been great, can look forward to 30% curveballs and 14% changeups. It’s a devastating mix.
In recent years, pitching prospects seem to burst onto the scene fully formed. This season has been filled with exciting debuts – Mason Miller, Bryce Miller, Taj Bradley, Eury Pérez – and those pitchers feel like forces of nature already. That’s been the recent trend. George Kirby popped right away last year, Hunter Greene and Nick Lodolo debuted fully tooled out, and you can pop back through recent seasons and find more examples of the same. What about 2021 Trevor Rogers, or Shane McClanahan, or Logan Gilbert? Or 2019 Michael Soroka and Chris Paddack? Increasingly, it seems, pitchers reach the major leagues near their peak form, even if not all of them have been able to maintain it.
Valdez is just different. He spent two years bouncing between the bullpen and rotation with mixed results. He was hardly heralded. Then he learned to harness his sinker. Then he learned to harness his curveball. Then he learned to do it every time. Then he added a cutter. He’s progressively improving himself, and from an already-solid base; I’ve been writing about how important he is to the Astros for years now, and that version of Valdez wasn’t nearly as indispensable as the current-day one.
That seems to be the story of Valdez’s life. It’s not just pitching – as Chandler Rome chronicled for The Athletic, he’s evolving off the mound too, taking on a bigger leadership role and getting more comfortable in his own shoes (Louboutins, naturally) year by year. He’s worked with a sports psychologist to hone his consistency. Watch 2020 Valdez, and you’d assume he would struggle to work fast enough to handle the pitch clock, but he’s turning in one of his best seasons yet and hasn’t surrendered an automatic ball all year.
I love following phenoms in baseball. It’s fun seeing Miller (either one) spring from Zeus’ forehead fully formed, or whatever other metaphor your high school English teachers burned into your brain. But there’s something to be said for slow progression too. Valdez started out as an ineffective swingman, wearing suits Héctor Rondón bought for him. Now he’s a dominant starter wearing what he wants, when he wants. The curveball and the sinker were there all along; he’s just fashioned them from raw tools into the complete package. Hitters better hope they’re having a good day when they face Valdez, because he’s never having a bad one.