Framber Valdez’s crafty first-pitch adjustment
Framber Valdez had a spectacular game last night. For seven innings, he bewitched, cajoled and otherwise confused the Yankee offense. As Alex Eisert noted, he achieved a career high in swinging strikeouts en route to a whopping nine strikeouts.
How did he do it? As best I can tell, he made one important adjustment: He used his wipeout curveball to start batters and ended up with 16 firsts in 27 at-bats, plus a weak grounder that turned into slapstick comedy:
That’s especially impressive when you consider the beginning of his outing: He started six of his first eight at-bats with a ball and looked like he might struggle to find the zone. But he stuck to his plan, and the Yankees, who had taken the first eight pitches they saw, began swinging aggressively the rest of the night.
The first time through the lineup, all nine Yankees took the first pitch they saw. The second time, five of them swung. The third time, four out of eight swung. They hacked away to no avail: the nine swings yielded one slick grounder, one foul ball and seven strikeouts. With that kind of success, Valdez worked over and if you’re a Yankee fan, you’re not going to like what happens when Valdez works over.
Why did the Yankees swing so much on first pitches as the night wore on? After all, Framber Valdez is on the mound. If you get into an extended count with him, he will finish you off with curveballs. That book is widely known throughout the league. His first time through the lineup, the Yankees were successful in a layup, which should have given them an advantage, but Valdez simply regrouped and pumped sinkers against them. That plan led to some hard contact, but nothing to show for it, as only Josh Donaldson reached base the first time.
Still, the Yankees connected with Valdez’s sinker, which seemed to encourage them to swing more often. I can see why. After all, a take-first approach is often a good plan against Valdez. He’s occasionally prone to walks, though he’s been better this year, and it’s not like batters have done much even when they swing at him—I don’t know if it’ll feel like swinging at his bowling ball or abracadabra- it’s gone. worse.
Last night, however, Valdez’s sinker wasn’t so fearsome. The Yankees put seven sinkers in play their first time through the order, and only three produced grounders. For Valdez, that qualifies as a disaster. I’m not sure his sinker would have graded worse on a pitch model last night—playoff adrenaline produced season-high velocity, which naturally comes with less vertical drop—but it was clear the Yankees set him up, with six hard -Hit balls his first time through the lineup. Last night, it seems, was a night to swing at Valdez, and the sooner the better. Late in the count, you might be swinging at a curveball.
Again, the Yankees took every first pitch their first time through the order. But Valdez and catcher Martín Maldonado saw through it and realized the Yankees were making solid enough contact that they would want to swing early. Getting to two strikes against Valdez is never fun, but when you hit the sinker well, the difference between two-strike curveball hell and putting a ball in play early is huge. Any of us would have gotten the same advice if we were advising the New York players: swing at those fastballs while the swing is good, guys.
This is how you end up with fluctuations like this:
Or like Stanton’s weak grounder that produced the usual Valdez chatter drop.
All four swings came the second time through the order, and they all produced poor results for the Yankees. Valdez finished the at-bats with two strikeouts and two weak grounders. When he went through the lineup a third time, the Yankees were thoroughly confused, which is the last place you want to be against one of the best pitchers in baseball. He ended up throwing just seven of his first 26 pitches in the bullpen, a career-low rate, while ending up with nine strikeouts and no walks. It’s hard to overstate how out of left field this plan was; he completely avoided the zone and got a bunch of first-pitch strikes for his trouble.
Were those early curveballs all that separated Valdez from a disastrous start? Did this gambit win Houston the game? I don’t know how to measure it. But they seemed to baffle the New York lineup, and it’s hard to argue with the results: the first time through the lineup, he struck out a single Yankee and gave up a string of scorched contact. The next two times, he struck out eight and kept the ball on the ground when he allowed contact. The Yankees hit exactly one ball 10 degrees or higher in their last two trips through the order, and it was a towering popup, 54 degrees off Aaron Judge’s bat. Valdez had allowed four such balls to the first eight batters he faced, as a point of comparison.
If the Yankees regroup in New York, they will face Valdez again this series. They probably have to beat him to advance. That will mean figuring out a new plan. His first-pitch curveball ways flummoxed them; he threw the pitch to start 42% of opponents compared to 24% in the regular season. Their passivity turned into aggression in the worst possible way for them. What he and Maldonado do next to counter a formidable Yankee streak will largely determine whether Houston continues to cruise through the postseason.