Check. Check. Check.
Valdez was nails, reaching a career-high 11 strikeouts in the Astros’ 11-4 win over the Angels. He did so following the same playbook that has been working for him all year -- lean on the curveball as his out pitch.
“Framber has all the weapons,” manager Dusty Baker said. “Before I got here, I heard he had all the weapons, He just had to get it all together and find those strikes.”
He found them. Even before this game, opponents had very little luck doing anything productive with Valdez’s curveball. Batters were hitting .095 (4-for-42), slugging .167 off the pitch, and had struck out 21 times.
Add 11 to that total. Houston’s win was dotted with plenty of offensive punch, but the story of the night was Valdez, who finished off every one of his 11 strikeout victims with the curveball.
The 11 strikeouts tied for the fifth most that any pitcher has gotten on curveballs in one game since the start of pitch tracking in 2008. It’s also the most since Nick Pivetta racked up 11 that way for the Phillies on June 18, 2018.
"He has that good of a breaking ball,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “It was no accident. We're not gonna strike out that much very often, you're not going to see really good hitters take called thirds like that, and not really be in a good position. He's that good.”
It’s easy to forget that five months ago, when Spring Training was in full force and life was normal, Valdez was fighting for one of the last spots in the rotation. Today, he’s one of Houston’s two most productive starters. He’s worked at least seven innings in three of his five starts in August and hasn’t lasted fewer than six.
Valdez can trace most of the progress back to that one pitch.
“It’s different for me this year -- it’s getting a little bit more movement than last year,” Valdez said of the curve. “But it's also a matter of being able to throw it where I want it, in the strike zone.”
Shortstop Carlos Correa, who broke the game open with a three-run double in the sixth, isn’t surprised about Valdez’s progress this year. He said he faced his teammate during Summer Camp and was able to give him feedback about how well his pitches were moving, and Correa senses that helped Valdez’s confidence when the regular season got started.
“His command is there,” Correa said. “He’s nasty. So now that he knows that, he can attack hitters, he can go out there and you can get ahead with strike one. And he's been able to do that all year, and that's why he's so successful.”
Harnessing energy has played a role, too. The spin rate on Valdez’s curve (2,933 rpm) was second highest in the Majors, behind only Sonny Gray (2,966). The key was gaining control of it.
“Sometimes last year, I was trying to throw it a little bit too hard and getting a little bit too much rotation on it and I couldn’t locate it,” Valdez said. “This year, it’s really been a great pitch for me because I've known the exact point that I want to throw it, and have been able to get the movement and location on it that I want to get.”
Though the Astros’ overall record (16-13) is a little more pedestrian than they’re accustomed to, and they’ve lost a lot of firepower in their rotation, Valdez is quietly putting together a season worthy of acclaim. His 2.35 ERA is ninth best among American League starters. In fact, the four runs he allowed in his sterling outing versus the Angels ended a string of four consecutive outings allowing one or zero runs.
Perhaps most importantly, he’s pitching deep into games, and given the unsteady nature of the bullpen, that was one of Valdez’s biggest contributions given the long day that awaits them on Tuesday.
“I feel like I've demonstrated to everybody that they can feel comfortable when I'm on the mound in that situation with that kind of pitch count,” Valdez said. “It’s something that I’ve worked to do, to win that confidence, for them to put me into those kinds of situations.”