Welcome to our 2020 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we take a look at the 2020 season for Phillips Valdez.
2020 in one sentence
Phillips Valdez went from a waiver pickup to one of the most reliable relievers in Boston’s bullpen, using an effective changeup to solidify his standing in the bullpen.
Before 2020, Valdez had spent the majority of his professional baseball career trying to climb the ladder into the big leagues. He finally got to the summit in 2019, but that equated to all of 16 innings of work sprinkled across the summer with the Rangers. While his work there wasn’t horrible (3.94 ERA), it didn’t earn him a long-time role in Texas, with the Mariners taking a flyer on him off waivers before the Red Sox stepped in with a subsequent waiver claim near the end of February.
Of course, the season didn’t start for another few months, but when it did, Valdez had done enough in both spring training and summer camp to earn a shot at a full-time role in the bullpen. He certainly didn’t waste it, especially early on. In fact, Valdez didn’t give up a run until his sixth appearance and had a sub-1.00 ERA entering September.
As he continued to put zeros on the board, then-manager Ron Roenicke continued to trust him, which led to a near doubling of Valdez’s workload compared to 2019, as the righty tossed 30 ⅓ frames, ranking fourth among all Red Sox pitchers (read: not just relievers). Across those frames, due to some struggles in September, Valdez produced a palatable overall ERA (3.26), although the peripherals weren’t as solid (4.38 FIP and 4.68 xFIP). However, at the end of the day limiting runs is the most important part of pitching and Valdez did that relatively well, especially in comparison to many of his fellow Red Sox relievers.
Valdez helped himself avoid too many runs by limiting homers and avoiding much in terms of hard contact. He allowed 0.89 home runs per nine innings and a hard hit rate of 21.6 percent, which was a drastic reduction from his production in 2019. Keeping on the avoiding solid contact track, Valdez allowed an average exit velocity of 84.8 miles per hour, which was in 95th percentile in the majors in 2020, according to Baseball Savant. It’s also interesting to note that Valdez was more effective against left-handed batters vs. right-handed batters, producing a 3.69 FIP against the former and a 4.83 FIP against the latter.
The biggest key to Valdez’s success, and I wrote about this in August, was his changeup. Sitting at about 85 mph, Valdez’s changeup induced a 36.8 percent whiff rate and was worth 2.2 runs above average, putting it among the top 20 most valuable changeups among MLB relievers in 2020, per FanGraphs. Valdez also created a fair amount of vertical movement with his pitches, and not just his changeup, while creating some decent horizontal movement with his sinker. In addition, Valdez was in the 77th percentile among MLB pitchers in fastball spin, according to Baseball Savant.
For as good as Valdez was in the first half or so of the season, he hit a wall in September, casting a cloud over an otherwise solid campaign. After posting an 0.86 ERA through the end of August, Valdez followed with an 8.68 ERA in September. The problems started right away, as he allowed six earned runs combined across his first two appearances of the month. He settled from there, but in a year of smaller sample sizes than usual, those outings stick out.
Valdez’s struggles in September weren’t the only red flags on the year. As I mentioned, some of his peripheral numbers will need improvement going forward. He wasn’t a big strikeout guy, with a strikeout rate of 21.9 percent, and that looked even worse when compared with his walk rate (11.7 percent). All those walks led to a less than ideal WHIP (1.62), which showed that Valdez’s strength in limiting runs may have been more a symptom of getting out of jams. However, that doesn’t really run parallel with his ability to strand runners, as his left on base rate sunk from 88.2 percent last year to 75.3 percent this year. Part of the problem was a diminished ability to get balls on the ground, as his groundball rate fell to 46.6 percent vs. 53.3 percent a year ago.
In addition, Valdez’s best performances often came in low leverage situations. That’s pretty common, as most pitchers have worse stats in higher leverage spots, but Valdez produced a 3.42 FIP in low leverage situations and an 8.65 FIP when the degree of difficulty went up to high.
The Big Question
One of the biggest questions surrounding Valdez entering 2020 was whether he could improve against left-handed batters. As I noted above, he did just that and ended up producing at an improved rate against lefties vs. righties. Of course, his work against righties got a bit worse, so a bit more consistency will be required going forward.
Looking ahead to 2021
It’s not entirely clear what the future will hold for Valdez. He is still on the 40-man roster, but there is a long way before we’ll have certainty about how things will shake out. However, even if we don’t have official word on his role next year, I think he did more than enough in 2020 to earn himself a spot in next year’s bullpen. Of course, there are still ways he can improve to solidify that role and earn himself more opportunities. Most importantly, he needs to bring down his walk rate, get more ground balls and strike out more batters. It would also be helpful if he could get either his sinker or slider to be as effective as his changeup. It may seem like a lot to ask, but Valdez already succeeded without those fixes. If he can make any progress in these areas, he’ll be in an even better position.