Game 1 nod a 'privilege' Valdez has earned

October 26th, 2021

HOUSTON -- All has to do is close his eyes, and he can visualize himself back in 2015, when he signed a Minor League contract with the Astros. Shortly after signing, he was assigned to the Dominican Summer League to begin his rise in the Houston system.

Back then, he never would have imagined himself here at Minute Maid Park, ready to start Game 1 of the World Series against the Braves. Yet when he closes his eyes on Tuesday night, that’s exactly where he’ll be.

The lefty will begin the Astros’ quest to bring the World Series trophy back to Houston, opening the Series against veteran Braves starter Charlie Morton.

“For me, it's an honor,” Valdez said Monday during the World Series workout day. “It's a privilege to be the starter. … It's something I never thought about, to be honest, as a kid. I didn't know what it meant, but when I started getting involved in baseball and realizing how impactful it was for youth just on and off the field, that's when I started dying, wishing to be part of the postseason, to be part of the team, and obviously to be an opener and to be a starter in the World Series.

“It’s an honor for me. It's a privilege. I'm just super excited to be here.”

To get here, Valdez had to learn how to throw strikes and be a presence on the mound. He entered 2020 with a 4.60 ERA across 107 2/3 innings over two seasons in the big leagues. With a 1.523 WHIP, he walked 5.7 batters per nine innings during the 2018 and ’19 seasons.

Following that ’19 season, the 27-year-old worked with psychologist Andy Nunez in the Dominican Republic, helping him focus on the mound and slow the game down. In 2020, Valdez became a calm, collected pitcher who had learned to harness his control and let his stuff play, posting a 3.57 ERA across 70 2/3 innings with 76 strikeouts and 16 walks before making four strong starts in the postseason.

And the stuff certainly plays. Valdez relies on a dominant curveball that baffles hitters and a sinker that induces tons of ground balls and weak contact -- he led the Majors in ground-ball rate this season. In an era when home run rates have skyrocketed, being able to avoid high launch angles is a valuable skill.

“His curveball is very sharp, and he blends it in real well with the sinker,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “I faced him last year in Summer Camp, and the sinker is obviously his best pitch, the one he uses the most. When he starts throwing that curveball back foot, it breaks really late. So it's really hard for hitters to tell the difference between the curveball and the sinker. That's what makes him very special.”

In 2021, Valdez asserted himself in the rotation, posting a 3.14 ERA in 134 2/3 innings. He’s coming off a masterful performance in Game 5 of the American League Championship Series against the Red Sox, throwing eight innings of one-run ball.

During that start, he closed his eyes in the dugout and did some meditation to reset and clear his mind.

“It's something that I have planned to continue doing for the rest of my outings,” Valdez said. “It's something that, when I do it, I lose my sense of pride. I lose my sense of shame. I just focus on the job at hand, and it really centers me to get focused on the job that I need to do. So it's something that's definitely helped me a lot, and it's something that I plan on continue doing for the next outing.

“… For me, it's a matter of controlling my emotions, controlling the adrenaline. Just worry about executing my pitches, throwing my pitches with intensity and not trying to be too perfect with everything and just let the results follow from there.”

Valdez will be on his biggest stage yet on Tuesday night. He and the Astros are hoping he can build on his last start and set the tone for the rest of the Series.

“That’s a really happy guy,” designated hitter Yordan Alvarez said. “I think it's difficult for you to see Framber upset at any moment. You can see him maybe going back over some of the things that he's gone through in a game, but then he lets it go and gets over it. I think that's part of what's given him the results that he has. He has the ability to forget things and move on and just be in a happy state of mind always.”