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Phillips Valdez is leaning into his changeup

Valdez’s changeup has been the key to his success.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

When we did our staff superlatives predictions ahead of this very weird 2020 season, one of the questions was who would be the biggest surprise of the campaign. Another asked who would be the best pitcher on the team. At the time, I wanted to go outside the box and pick Phillips Valdez for the first question and maybe even the second, but I didn’t have the guts to do so. Who knew that my cowardice would be coupled with inaccuracy, as Valdez has been both a major surprise and one of the better pitchers on the roster.

Ron Roenicke has experimented with his pitcher usage and the bullpen has been a mixed bag. A lot of guys have gotten chances, but very few have earned a consistent role. Valdez is one of the few who has an argument for one and it’s easy to see why by looking at his back-of-the-baseball-card stats. He has an 0.96 ERA in six appearances (9 ⅓ innings). There are of course reasons to be skeptical. The sample size isn’t large and Valdez has only thrown 25 ⅓ total MLB innings all together, as the 28-year-old made his big league debut just last year with the Rangers. Some of the underlying numbers also point to trouble, as Valdez has an xFIP of 4.63 and a 1.50 WHIP, but it’s difficult to ignore that sub-1.00 ERA.

So what has been the key to Valdez’s success? Without looking at the numbers, you might expect a breakout reliever would be benefiting from an incredible boost in velocity, but all of Valdez’s offerings are actually down in velocity from a year ago. You might also imagine that Valdez has just had incredible strikeout stuff, but his 19.5 percent strikeout rate is lower than it was a year ago and isn’t anywhere near the elite level of many of the best shutdown relievers.

Instead of relying on blistering speed and big-time strikeout numbers, Valdez has instead crafted a strong start to the season by leaning heavily on his plus changeup. This is a pitch that has been effective throughout Valdez’s time at the MLB level, even if that’s a pretty brief period. According to FanGraphs’ pitch values, Valdez’s changeup was worth 2.7 runs above average a year ago and that mark has only dipped slightly to 2.1 this year. For comparison’s sake, his other offerings have all had negative values in both seasons.

When a pitch is working, it would make sense to start throwing it more often, and that’s just what Valdez has done this year. With the Rangers in 2019, he threw changeups 36.1 percent of the time, according to Baseball Savant. His usage has jolted up to 51.2 percent of the time this season. That doesn’t just mean he’s throwing it more frequently than a year ago. It means he is utilizing his changeup as his primary offering.

Valdez has utilized his changeup in different locations depending on the batter. As the two images below show, he has kept his changeup low, but scattered across the zone against right-handed batters, while he has tended to keep the pitch on the outer half against lefties. In fact, he’s thrown quite a few up in the zone, which goes against convention, but it has worked so far.

Against right-handed batters.
Via FanGraphs
Against left-handed batters.
Via FanGraphs

Despite these differing approaches, when you encompass all batters, Valdez has had more success provoking swings at changeups on the lower inside corner against righties and on the lower outside edge against lefties.

Via FanGraphs

As I mentioned earlier, it makes perfect sense why Valdez would choose to throw his changeup more often. Opposing batters have a wOBA of just .246 against the pitch, while they have marks above .400 against his other offerings. Valdez also has induced an average exit velocity of 79.4 miles per hour with his changeup, helping fuel an overall mark that is within the 91st percentile in the entire league, according to Baseball Savant. The changeup is also Valdez’s strikeout pitch. Of his eight total strikeouts this season, seven have come via his changeup, which has produced a whiff percentage of 36.8 percent, according to Baseball Savant.

Even with these relatively impressive results, there are still some reasons to be concerned about how sustainable Valdez’s start to the season has been. In addition to the high xFIP and WHIP numbers I mentioned above, he also has a walk rate of 9.8 percent and for someone who hasn’t been a prototypical strikeout pitcher, its not great that is ground ball rate has dropped to 44.4 percent while his line drive rate has increased to 29.6 percent from a year ago. In addition, Baseball Savant rates the break of Valdez’s changeup toward the middle of the pack compared with an average offering.

Even with all those qualifiers thrown in, something is working. As long as Valdez keeps utilizing his changeup like he’s been doing, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t, he should keep being an effective pitcher for an otherwise iffy bullpen.