His team needed an ace, so he became one of baseball's best pitchers

June 27th, 2023

The Astros lost reigning American League Cy Young Award winner to the Mets in free agency last offseason, but they didn’t have to look very far to find their new ace.

has made a seamless transition into that role, taking his game to another level in the wake of Verlander’s departure.

Since he first established himself as a reliable starter for Houston during the shortened 2020 campaign, the left-hander has only gotten better. He broke out last year with a 2.82 ERA over an AL-leading 201 1/3 innings, finishing fifth in the AL Cy Young voting.

It was the first career 200-inning season for Valdez, as well as the third straight season he improved upon his ERA from the year prior.

But just when it seemed like he had reached his ceiling, he's raised it again. Here are some of his MLB ranks through Sunday.

  • 2nd in ERA (2.27)
  • 4th in WHIP (1.00)
  • T-7th in innings (99)
  • T-9th in strikeouts (104)
  • 8th in K/BB ratio (4.95)
  • 4th in FIP (2.71)
  • T-5th in Win Probability Added (2.2)

The native of Sabana Grande de Palenque, Dominican Republic, put an exclamation point on his brilliant first half in his last start, outdueling Verlander when the future Hall of Famer returned to Houston with the Mets on June 20. Valdez, who owns a 1.50 ERA over his past six starts, will look to keep on rolling when he faces the Cardinals in St. Louis on Tuesday.

Before he takes the mound for his next start, here's a look at some of the key adjustments that have fueled Valdez's leap in 2023. (All stats below are through Sunday.)

1) His velocity is up

Valdez was never one to light up the radar gun before 2023, but if you’ve seen him pitch this season, you might have noticed something different about him. He's now throwing pitches like this fairly regularly.

That was a 97.7 mph sinker to strike out Mets center fielder Brandon Nimmo, tying the mark for the fastest strikeout pitch of his career.

Valdez is averaging 95.5 mph on sinkers this season, with a max of 98.2 mph. From 2018-22, only 11.7% of the sinkers Valdez threw were 95+ mph, and he reached 97 mph just four times (not including the postseason).

This is the second straight season he has made substantial velocity gains, after he went from 92.5 mph in 2021 to 93.9 mph on sinkers in 2022.

His sinker was already an effective offering prior to 2023, but the velocity increase has made it even more so. In fact, his sinker ranks among the most valuable pitches in the Majors this year, in terms of runs prevented.

Best run value on single pitch type, 2023:

  • 1-T. Framber Valdez’s sinker: 16 runs prevented
  • 1-T. Joe Ryan’s 4-seam fastball: 16 runs prevented
  • 1-T. Charlie Morton’s curveball: 16 runs prevented
  • 4. Gerrit Cole’s 4-seam fastball: 15 runs prevented
  • 5. Yennier Cano’s sinker: 14 runs prevented

2) His cutter has become an elite weapon

Valdez's curveball typically has been his best bat-missing pitch, but he’s actually recorded a higher whiff rate (misses/swings) on cutters (47.7%) this year than he has on curves (38.2%).

The pitch, which he introduced last season, is becoming an increasingly important part of his repertoire. He opened this season throwing it around 10% of the time, like he did last year. However, he bumped it up to 19.2% in May and has been throwing it 20.6% of the time in June.

Valdez's cutter has an interesting movement profile, dropping more (42.6 inches) than any other cutter in the game on its way to the plate, and opponents haven't been able to get a handle on it yet.

Batters have hit just .123 (18-for-146) against Valdez's cutter in the two years he has been throwing it, one of the lowest batting averages against any pitch type in MLB during that span.

Lowest BA on single pitch type, since 2022
Min. 150 PAs ending on that pitch type

  1. Mark Leiter Jr.’s splitter: .091
  2. Penn Murfee’s sweeper: .110
  3. Edwin Díaz’s slider: .114
  4. Jovani Moran’s changeup: .122
  5. Framber Valdez’s cutter: .123

3) He's refined his two-strike approach

Valdez’s improvement with two strikes has been another key in his evolution: He’s become MLB’s most efficient pitcher when it comes to converting two-strike pitches into strikeouts (otherwise known as putaway rate). He has a 28% putaway rate in 2023, up from 23.5% in 2022.

Highest putaway rate, 2023
Min. 250 two-strike pitches thrown

  1. Framber Valdez (HOU): 28%
  2. Taj Bradley (TB): 27.4%
  3. Shohei Ohtani (LAA): 26.3%
  4. Braxton Garrett (MIA): 25.9%
  5. Blake Snell (SD): 25.6%

While he relied heavily on his curveball in two-strike counts in the past -- 272 of his 395 strikeouts (68.9%) came on curves from 2020-22 -- the left-hander has diversified his two-strike approach in 2023.

He now has three legitimate pitches he can use to finish off hitters and get K’s, recording 36 strikeouts on curveballs, 36 on cutters and 25 on sinkers in 2023, with a putaway rate of 24% or better with all three pitches.

With the changes he's made, Valdez is collecting strikeouts and limiting walks at career-best levels (26.7% K-rate, 5.4% BB-rate) so far this season, increasing his strikeout rate by 3.2 points and lowering his walk rate by 2.7 points from 2022. As usual, he's also racking up a ton of ground balls (58.1% GB rate), which puts him on a list of one: he's the only pitcher across MLB (min. 150 batters faced) with a strikeout rate of 26% or higher, a walk rate of 6% or lower and a ground-ball rate of 50% or higher in 2023.

It's a recipe that has helped Valdez cement himself as the guy atop the Astros' rotation and ascend the ranks of the best pitchers in the game. If he keeps it up, the AL Cy Young Award just might find a home in Houston for the second straight year.