Valdez offers real 'change' of pace for O's

Reliever hoping to land Opening Day roster spot with his unusual out pitch

March 15th, 2021

As a former catcher with nearly three decades experience in pro ball as a player, coach and manager, Orioles skipper Brandon Hyde has seen his fair share of changeups. He’s seen the parachutes that dive and dart with precision, like the changeup Kyle Hendricks throws. Hyde has seen bowling ball changeups, like those thrown by former closer Ryan Madson. But Hyde has never seen anything quite like Cesar Valdez's dead fish -- though to be fair, few have.

Asked to ponder the pitch on Monday morning, Hyde rattled his brain before pulling out a curious comp: Randy Choate. Remember Choate? The former journeyman reliever retired in 2017, having spent 15 seasons zigzagging the big leagues as a left-handed specialist. Durable, deceptive and a World Series champion with the Yankees in 2000, Choate relied on guile more than stuff, using it carve out a niche as one of the most successful LOOGYs (“left-handed one-out guy”) ever.

“Valdez is kind of that from the right side,” Hyde said. “But with a slider, also, different arm angles, command of three pitches, no fear on the mound and a strike thrower.”

Due to evolutions in game play and recent rule changes, specialists like Choate are somewhere between a dying breed and an anachronism. That’s part of what makes the Valdez comparison so interesting. While Choate used his as a secondary weapon, Valdez’s “dead fish” is his primary offering. And the O’s view Valdez as the opposite of a specialist, more of a swiss army knife who can start, relieve and even close if called upon.

“He came in last year and got results,” Hyde said. “He got some ugly swings. He only had one outing where he kind of scuffled, and he’s picked up right where he left off. We have a lot of ways we can use Cesar this season.”

In truth, because of his changeup, there isn’t a pitcher in baseball quite like Valdez, the soon-to-be 36-year-old journeyman signed out of the Mexican League by the Orioles last year. Back in the Majors for the first time since 2017, Valdez threw the dead fish 83.2 percent of the time, by far the highest changeup rate in MLB. It averaged 77.9 mph, second slowest of any big league changeup. It dropped 9.2 more inches than the average changeup, tied for tops in MLB: Almost no righty changeup (save for Devin Williams’ famous “airbender”) spins like Valdez’s either, rotating out of his hand at 4 rpm (from the pitcher’s point of view, where 12 rpm is pure backspin; most spin between 1-3 rpm).

The result? Nobody could touch it: Opponents went 6-for-43 against the pitch, with 12 strikeouts and no home runs allowed. All told, Valdez went 1-1 with a 1.26 ERA and three saves in nine games, with just three walks in 14 1/3 innings.

“It’s fun in camp to see so many young guys, so many hard throwers,” Valdez said, through team interpreter Ramón Alarcón. “I can’t do that. My thing is my breaking ball, my offspeed pitches, trying to get as many outs with the best pitches that I have.”

Of the 62 pitchers who had at least 40 plate appearances end on changeups, Valdez ranked sixth in opponent batting average (.140), ninth in slugging (.223) and eighth in wOBA (.191), per Statcast. The change was worth -6 runs (negative for a pitcher being a good thing), tied for eighth among all pitchers and third among relievers. Valdez credits Erik Sabel with teaching him the grip as a 21-year-old in the D-backs' system in 2006.

“After that, I’ve been perfecting it throughout the years,” Valdez said. “Now, I can throw it at different speeds, different angles, for strikes for balls, all over the place. It’s been a lot of hard work, dedication and a lot of struggle.”

That journey took Valdez to seven big league organizations and seven countries, including pro leagues in China and Mexico. He first reached the Majors for nine games with the D-backs in 2010, then not again until '17 with the A’s and Blue Jays. He’d been one of the top starters in the Mexican League for two years when the Orioles signed him in January 2020, at age 35.

After Baltimore summoned Valdez to the Majors in late August, he produced scoreless outings in his first six appearances, and eight of nine overall. Teammates quickly nicknamed him “El Jefe” (The Chief”) -- and marveled at what his dead fish could do. Now it stands as a key to what general manager and executive vice president Mike Elias called the “unprecedented” challenge of covering innings this season, with the O’s brainstorming several non-traditional strategies to do so while balancing pitcher workloads. Utilizing Valdez in a variety of ways -- he’s being stretched out as a starter in camp -- should help advance those goals.

“It will be a great achievement for me,” he said. “I’ve been invited [to camp], but never made an Opening Day roster. If I can achieve that this year, I’ll be thankful to God and the organization for such an opportunity.”