No pressure: Valdez ready to be Astros' ace

February 21st, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- The departure of Justin Verlander to the Mets during the winter cemented Astros left-hander Framber Valdez as the ace starting pitcher of the defending World Series champions. It’s a responsibility Valdez is learning to embrace.

Valdez started on Opening Day last year for the Astros, was the winning pitcher in the All-Star Game and finished fifth in American League Cy Young voting, but he pitched in the shadow of an expected future Hall of Famer who had one of the best seasons of his career at 39 years old. Now the focus is on the 29-year-old Dominican, and he’s ready for the challenge.

“I definitely feel a responsibility,” Valdez said Tuesday. “I don’t think I feel pressure in that regard. Obviously, we have a lot of great pitchers and I want to try to be the guy to lead those guys. I feel very responsible for that. I know there will be a little weight to carry, but it’s something I’m willing to do and look forward to it.”

Valdez’s maturation from someone who had a hard time throwing strikes in 2018 and ’19 into one of the top southpaws of the game has been remarkable. He was terrific last season, going 17-6 with a 2.82 ERA in 31 starts in the regular season, including a Major League-record 25 consecutive quality starts. He was 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA in four postseason starts, including 2-0 in the World Series (two runs allowed in 12 1/3 innings).

“I think I want to continue being where I am right now, just continue working hard and just improve everything I can,” Valdez said.

Here are Valdez’s thoughts on some other topics:

Contract extension
New Astros general manager Dana Brown said he’d reached out to Valdez’s agent recently to discuss a possible long-term contract extension. Brown gave starting pitcher Cristian Javier a five-year, $64 million extension on Feb. 10, but Valdez has a longer track record and more accomplishments. Valdez agreed to a $6.8 million deal to avoid arbitration on Jan. 13.

“Obviously, the Astros are a great organization and for me it’s something that would be an easy transition being here a lot longer,” Valdez said. “It’s something that would make me feel good.”

Brown has said he’d like to keep the Astros' younger core players in Houston, a group includes All-Star right fielder Kyle Tucker. He said he’d also like to extend star second baseman Jose Altuve and star third baseman Alex Bregman, both of whom have contracts that expire after the 2024 season.

World Baseball Classic
Valdez was originally scheduled to pitch for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic before pulling out just prior to the start of Spring Training. That came at the behest of the Astros, who were worried about his workload after throwing a career-high 226 1/3 innings combined last year in the regular season and postseason.

“Obviously, that was a decision the team made,” he said. “Some of the reasons they gave me were [that] I threw a lot of innings last year and it was a very short offseason. So they preferred me to be here. I took that in a positive way and just came here and tried to continue working hard and get ready for the season.”

Pitch timer
One of the reasons Valdez has been so successful the past few seasons is because of the mental side of his game. For the past few years, Valdez has been working with Dominican-based psychologist Dr. Andy Nunez, who’s part of the team’s mental skills group. Nunez gave him an exercise to help relax on the mound, which includes taking his time with deep breaths and even walking around the mound to collect his thoughts.

That may be more difficult to do this year with pitchers having 15 seconds to pitch the ball with the bases empty and 20 seconds with a runner on base. Valdez doesn’t think it will.

“I don’t think it will be difficult at all,” he said. “Those are the things I’m working on right now in my throwing program and my bullpens, and [I] try to take all the time just to see how long it would take between pitches or a batter or all those different things. It might be difficult for some guys, but I’ve been working on it. So when it comes to the season, it won’t be an issue.”