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One Big Question: Can Phillips Valdez fix his splits?

He’s probably no going to fill a role that will allow him to be bad against lefties.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Phillips Valdez.

The Question: Can Phillips Valdez straighten out his splits?

As we’ve talked about all offseason, this has been an offseason of extreme change for the Red Sox. Obviously sending Mookie Betts and David Price to the Dodgers was the biggest part of that, but there have been a ton of fringe, back-of-the-roster pitchers churned through the roster as well. We all know how important depth is over a 162-game marathon (although we don’t even know if this season will be 162 games, but that’s a whole nother thing), and Chaim Bloom is trying to make a lot of moves to shore up that depth. We’ve been covering these pitchers one by one as they’ve come up in our season preview, and we have reached Phillips Valdez, the newest addition on the roster, today.

Valdez is a 28-year-old righty who was picked up off waivers after spring training had already began. He’s been in the pros since back in 2009 after being signed out of the Dominican Republic by the Indians. He was let go from their organization after a couple of seasons, after which he was picked up by the Nationals. He moved up the ladder with them, making their top 25 prospect list on Baseball America before the 2016 team. Despite that status, he never quite made it up to the majors and was a minor-league free agent before last season. The Rangers took a chance on the righty, and after his long road he finally made his major-league debut in 2019. He was designated for assignment this winter and the Red Sox claimed him off waivers.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Valdez ended up making only 11 appearances in the majors last year with 16 innings under his belt, so we don’t have a ton of numbers to go by at the highest level. In those innings, though, Valdez pitched to a 3.94 ERA, which is a very solid number considering the run environment around the league last year. However, he also had a 5.49 FIP and a 4.54 DRA. He struck out over ten batters per nine innings, but that was much higher than his minor-league track record and not supported by his relatively low 21 percent swinging strike rate (per Baseball Prospectus).

The fact of the matter is that Valdez’s most likely role is going to be one of a multi-inning role in the majors who comes in to clean up after a bad start or after a starter has to leave early with injury. Valdez doesn’t quite have the track record to suggest he can start in the majors, but he’s started at times in the minors and has averaged just about three innings per appearance in his professional career. The thing is, in order to be successful in that role, you need to be able to pitch well against everyone. That hasn’t been the case for Valdez.

Again, we don’t have big samples to work with here, but we’ll start with the platoon splits from his only stretch in the majors when he allowed a .431 wOBA (on an OBP scale) to lefties compared to a mark of just .304 against righties. We’re not basing this all off 16 major-league innings, though. I might be dumb, but I’m not stupid. Valdez has shown significant platoon splits significantly throughout his professional career, with lefties posting a much higher OPS than righties in four of the last five years. His 2018 season was the only one in which the splits were just about even.

The bad news here is that we really don’t have a whole hell of a lot to go off as far as how to fix this. We have the pitch data, which I’ll get to, but again that is all under the cloud of small sample size. That data isn’t really available for minor-league pitchers, and since Valdez was never really a top prospect we don’t have much in the way of easily available scouting reports.

So, there are just a couple of things I will point out. The first is that Valdez’s changeup was quite good in the majors, which is strange! A changeup is a pitcher’s best weapon against hitters of opposite handedness. It is the biggest reason Eduardo Rodriguez has posted reverse splits (meaning he’s better against righties than lefties) over his entire career. Now, I’m not saying Valdez’s changeup is anywhere near Rodriguez’s, which is one of the better ones in baseball, but it’s solid. It got average-ish grades in the minors and last year it got whiffs 30 percent of the time in the majors and gave up an expected wOBA of just .200 and an actual wOBA of .164.

One would think that would be enough to neutralize lefties, but it wasn’t. For one thing, again, the sample is very small. Weird things happen in these small sample sizes. There was also his fastball, which Baseball Savant calls a sinker. Whatever it is, it was bad last year. The velocity is fine — he sits in the 92-94 range — but hitters teed off. Batters whiffed only 14 percent of the time, they averaged an exit velocity of about 90 mph, put up an expected wOBA of .412 and an actual wOBA of .489. Most of that damage was done by lefties, with those numbers coming in at 0 percent, 93 mph, .647 and .847, respectively. Again, this sample is tiny, but it’s hard to feel great about it. And, looking at where he threw the pitch, the issue was clear.

via Baseball Savant

So, yeah. It seems like the big issue for Valdez is to shore up that fastball command, at least based on what he did in the majors. It would likely also help to throw his slider a bit more (he threw it under six percent of the time in the majors), if for no other reason than to mix things up a bit. In any case, as I said above Valdez’s most likely role is going to be of a multi-inning nature, so he needs to be able to face any kind of batter. With his season likely to start in Triple-A, that will be one thing to monitor as he tries to make his way up to the bigs.