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2021 in Review: Phillips Valdez regresses

He was a solid depth arm, but nothing more.

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MLB: AUG 05 Red Sox at Tigers Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every weekday we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at the year that was for Phillips Valdez.

2021 in one sentence

Phillips Valdez had his moments in 2021, but at the end of the day was on the wrong side of fringy for too much of his big-league run.

The Positives

Valdez was one of the pitchers I was most looking forward to seeing in the 2021 season, as his 2020 was so unexpected and bizarre, and it was hard to know if the positivity felt afterwards was just because everyone around him was so bad or if there was actually something there. What made him particularly interesting was that he pitched to differently than most every other effective reliever in baseball, relying heavily on his changeup rather than that just being a pitch to mix in and keep opposite-handed hitters off balance.

The results didn’t quite hold up over a bit of a larger sample and with more film on him for hitters to watch, but the changeup was still his primary offering, and a good one. While it was a bit of a step back from 2020, that was a high bar to clear and in a vacuum his changeup was effective. Per Baseball Savant, he threw the pitch just under 49 percent of the time, he allowed a wOBA (all-encompassing offensive stat on the same scale as OBP) of just .306, which was actually a bit worse than expected based on plate discipline and batted ball stats. But the changeup produced an average exit velocity around 87 mph along with a whiff rate coming in just under 31 percent. It’s not good enough to be the lead pitch for a capital-G Good major-league reliever, but relative to the season for Valdez, the changeup was a clear positive.

This next one sounds like a backhanded compliment, and I suppose it is, but there is real value in being an effective mop-up arm, and Valdez fit that bill. The Red Sox, fortunately, did not find themselves in as many blowout situations in which they were behind this past season as compared to 2020, but when they did find themselves in that spot they were able to turn to Valdez to clean up some innings. The righty recorded more than three outs in 43 percent of his outings in 2021, and finished with a 2.19 ERA in those situations.

I would also point to his ability to induce ground balls as a positive for his season despite that not always being the best strategy in front of this particular Red Sox defense. That said, even given the rough glovework on the dirt for much of the season, Valdez was able to finish the season with a batting average on balls in play of .277, a career-low, to go along with a career-high 58 percent ground ball rate. Part of the reason for that, per FanGraphs, is that he was able to limit his hard contact to about 30 percent of the time when the ball was on the ground, as compared to a 35 percent rate on balls in the air.

The Negatives

While there were still some things to be excited about with Valdez, and he was able to fill a legitimate role, the overall season was still not good. Part of the issue here is that he was not in the majors all season, reducing his sample and leaving him more vulnerable to a couple of bad outings skewing his numbers. That’s true to some degree, but we’re really just talking about degrees of underperformance here. On the season, Valdez finished with a 5.85 ERA, and his 4.67 FIP was better, but still 10 percent worse than league-average after adjusting for park effects. He was worse than average no matter which way you want to slice it.

The biggest issue for Valdez was that he just continued to struggle with his control. If you want to look at things from a positive point of view, he actually did finish with a career-best walk rate. On the other hand, that rate still came in just a shade under 11 percent, which is significantly worse than league-average. Pitching in relief, certain pitchers can get away with walk issues, typically if they match that up with high strikeout rates, but Valdez didn’t do that, as his 20 percent strikeout rate was still a bit below-average. Walks are an issue that makes sense for a pitcher who relies so heavily on his changeup and sinker, two pitches with movement that are at their best out of the zone, but he’s not getting the whiffs needed on those offerings to counteract the walks.

And speaking of that sinker, that was not a good pitch to pair with his changeup, and it just didn’t get the job done. For one thing, he does not miss many bats with the pitch, finishing with a whiff rate of just 13.6 percent. It’s probably worth considering switching to a four-seam fastball that can work up in the zone, especially since his changeup so often works in the bottom of the zone. That’s easier said than done, though, and per Baseball Savant he did use a four-seam a few times in 2021 to horrendous results. But even if that’s not a viable solution, he certainly needs to get the changeup down in the zone, as opposed to all of the pitches you can see below that stayed in the middle of the zone.

The Big Question

Can Phillips Valdez get by with his changeup-led approach for a second straight year?

This is a tough one, I suppose. On the one hand, as we discussed the changeup was a solid pitch. It took a bit of a step back compared to 2020, which was probably bound to happen, but in isolation it was a good offering and worthy of leading a repertoire. The bad news is that pitches don’t work in isolation, and every pitch of an at bat, and really of an outing, is playing off everything that has come before it. And for Valdez, the full picture just didn’t work. Perhaps he doesn’t need a full overhaul of his arsenal, but some tweaks are certainly needed.

2022 and beyond

Valdez is still in his pre-arbitration years and has one more minor-league option remaining. That means he’s probably going to survive on the 40-man through the offseason and enter next season in the depth mix. What his exact role will be likely depends on how many bullpen additions the Red Sox make whenever the transaction freeze is lifted, but ideally he’ll be a depth arm. A team in contention probably shouldn’t be looking at Valdez as someone on whom they are depending for important innings, but all teams need depth arms ready to come up from Triple-A in case of injury, and for covering those blowout losses to not waste the rest of the bullpen. It’s not the most glorious role, but Valdez can fill it, and if he can recapture some of that 2020 magic he can increase that role going into 2023.