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Previewing Astros game 1 starter Framber Valdez

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The Rays will need good game plan to get on the scoreboard

Texas Rangers v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

When I first saw Framber Valdez, who the Rays will face in game one of American League Division Series, I thought of the Rays Jose Alvarado, because he throws a sinker with tremendous movement and a breaking ball with a big sweeping movement as well. You can think of Britton too. The curve ball on its own is similar to a left-handed version of Charlie Morton’s.

Here’s the sinker being beaten into the ground:

And here’s that hard low-80s sweeping curve:

The curve is extremely hard for its shape, but his sinker doesn’t match the speed of Alvarado or Britton. On the other hand, Valdez has much better command.

The Rays have never faced him. It is generally difficult to deal with a strange pitcher, and as a rare left-handed sinkerballer, Valdez qualifies. If you have to face a strange pitcher, It’s not a bad idea to think of similar pitchers and prepare for him. So should the Rays put a lot of RHBs in the lineup, just as they prepared them for Britton?

Not a bad idea. But there’s something to be careful about.

Don’t Pull the Ball

The result on pulled ground balls is bad throughout all of baseball, but it’s especially bad for right-handed batters when they hit ground balls against Valdez to shortstop or third base.

FanGraphs

This what he’s going for, this is is plan, and he’s great at getting weak contact when hitters are out in front.

When Valdez paints the outside edge, which he will, the hitters have to hit his ball to opposite direction, like this:

Or like this:

The Oakland righties who faced him in the ALDS knew this, as they’d seen plenty of Valdez in the regular season. Those Oakland righties hit nine ground balls against him, four of which went the other way. The results were not good.

There’s a lot of luck, as well as how comfortable a team is in the shift, that goes into what happens to a ground ball after it leaves the bat. I think that was a good attempt.

The basic approach for left-handed batters is much the same, but they will have even more trouble, because Houston almost always use the shift when Valdez pitches against lefties.

And they have to prepare for that big curveball going away from them. All a left-handed batter can do is inside-out swing, if you’re lucky, these hits will come out, like this:

Or like this:

Valdez’s Adjustment

Valdez had a contingency plan for that Oakland inside-out approach. He knew that they knew him, and knew what they would try to do, so he zigged while they zagged.

Valdez threw many inside sinkers, and the Oakland righties could not respond to the pitch — there were almost no strings at the front-door strike.

Baseball Savant

Maybe it was because they were just focusing on pushing the outside sinker. And when Valdez added a back-foot curveball, which seems to have a good tunneling effect with an inside sinker, the batter gets embarrassed.

Valdez has very good command and if he shows it against the Rays, the Rays are not likely to score very many runs. This is why he consistently throws 7 innings each game.

The Rays will need to prepare for Framber Valdez carefully, respecting him the same way they have ace pitchers like Gerrit Cole or Hyun-Jin Ryu. This is not an exaggeration. Six of his 11 appearances have been one-run games. If you remove one game against the Angels where he pitched poorly, his ERA drops to 2.66, which only surpasses by a little his 2.85 and 2.94 FIP and xFIP. With a career 63% rate, he’s one of the best groundball pitchers in the game.

Hope?

Let’s talk about that game against the Angels.

First is a comparison of the location chart from Valdez’s game against the Athletics and his game against the Twins.

Baseball Savant

The only difference is the presence of that inside front-door sinker, thrown for a strike.

I think Valdez threw inside sinker to throw more innings, and as a hedge against the Oakland hitters who had faced him once before. It was very wise and worked. But it’s not something he always does. Why not?

The sinker is a risky pitch. If it ends up misplaced, and if the batter is able to see the inside edge, that pitch can become a long ball very easily.

This is what happened in that one poor game.

Baseball Savant

His sinker was high and in the zone, and that was an easy ball for hitters. Especially for a short pitcher (Valdez is 5’11”), a high sinker looks like a flat fastball.

I think Valdez will follow the same pitching plan against the Rays today as he used against the Twins, at least until the early part of the game. It’s safer. If that happens, the zone Valdez needs to throw to will be limited to the outside edge, and if the Rays prepare well for it, they will be able to make some good contact to put the ball in play the other way, hopefully with pace.

Even if they can’t score many runs, if the Rays can get some men on, and maybe get their running game going, they will be able to put enough pressure on Valdez to force him into plan B. Then he will begin to throw the inside pitch. Perhaps he makes a mistake.

This is my suggestion for the Rays to beat Framber Valdez. It’s hard to face an unfamiliar pitcher, especially when that pitcher is as good as Valdez. But the Rays have already succeeded in dealing with Ryu recently, one of the top lefty pitchers in the league. Of course Toronto’s poor defense helped the Rays in that case; Houston’s defense won’t gift them any extra outs.

I don’t expect the Rays to score much tonight, but sometimes it just takes a few runs to notch that win.