Valdez baffling hitters with 'the dead fish'

September 13th, 2020

Back on Jan. 10, the Orioles made maybe the most under-the-radar free agent signing of the offseason, inking right-hander Cesar Valdez to a Minor League contract out of the Mexican League. It barely registered in the news cycle. Not only had Valdez, who'd soon turn 35, not pitched in the Majors since 2017. But in an era when high velocity dominates late in games, he profiled as an unorthodox reliever with a fastball that maxed out in the mid 80s, pinpoint command and the durability to provide length from the back end of the bullpen.

What the Orioles thought they were getting was a depth arm. What they received was a soft-tossing Swiss Army knife, and one of the best success stories of the 2020 season.

"He's unbelievable, incredible," manager Brandon Hyde said. "He uses different arm angles, different looks and it's fun to watch."

The latest example came Saturday, when Valdez fired three innings of shutout relief with Baltimore's playoff aspirations hanging in the balance, before their eventual 2-1 loss to the Yankees. Valdez retired nine of the 10 batters he faced on 42 pitches. Valdez did not throw a pitch harder than 85.9 mph, and he only threw two varieties: 34 changeups and eight sinkers.

Yet Valdez dominated.

"There was no panic," Hyde said later. "Just throwing the dead fish up there, letting them tap it in front of them. Great pitching."

"The dead fish" is what Valdez's teammates call his changeup, which he throws 82 percent of the time and drops 8.5 inches more than the average changeup, per Statcast. It drops more than all but one other pitcher's changeup in the game (the Angels' Noé Ramirez), and hitters are responding accordingly: They are just 3-for-24 (.125) with nine strikeouts against the pitch, which floats in at 78 mph on average.

By comparison, Valdez's sinker lives in the 83-86 mph range, and that's about it. He also has a slider but rarely uses it.

"I can throw [my changeup] from different angles and in any count, which is what I want to do," Valdez said, through team interpreter Ramon Alarcon. "Every time out there I am trying to change something: either my windup, my release point. I am trying to make the hitter uncomfortable, for them to always be on their toes."

Said Hyde: "He just slips and slides it in there."

The result is a relief weapon singular in the sport. Is Valdez a longman? Is he Baltimore's best high-leverage option? Both? The answer might be all of the above. What the Orioles know is he's been virtually unhittable since being recalled from their alternate training site in late August, logging 10 1/3 scoreless innings across eight appearances.

"He did that the entire summer camp -- just made all of our guys look silly," said veteran righty Alex Cobb. "It's so cool to see a guy who had the struggles he had in his career, to have to play where he had to play, to come back here. I don't know what he was before, but it can't be this. Because that stuff is unhittable and he does it with such ease."

Things have rarely looked so simple for Valdez, who, as the Orioles' oldest player, is called "The Chief" in their clubhouse. Signed out of the Dominican Republic by the D-backs as a 20-year-old in 2005, Valdez didn't reach the Majors until 2010 with Arizona. It would be seven years until he did again, cycling through three organizations and stints in Mexican and Chinese pro leagues before latching on with the A's in 2017.

Valdez made four combined starts for Oakland and Toronto in 2017, then returned to Mexico for two seasons before signing with Baltimore this winter. Valdez wasn't in big league camp, but he was brought over sporadically from the Minor League side for depth purposes. He's simply fascinated teammates and opponents alike ever since; the Orioles marvel not only at his ability to get outs without plus stuff, but at how consistent he can be (10/2 KK/BB ratio) despite constantly changing release points and delivery.

"Some of my teammates throw 98 mph, but I can't do that," Valdez explained. "I am trying to perfect what I can do."