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One Big Question: Will Phillips Valdez be able to lean so heavily on his changeup again?

It worked in 2020, but it’s a dicey proposition for a second straight year.

Boston Red Sox v Atlanta Braves Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Phillips Valdez.

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

As Chaim Bloom was looking to remake a Red Sox roster that, whether we liked it or not, was going through a major overhaul last season, he was bringing in a whole lot of flier pitchers. Some of those were through waivers, some were through minor-league signings, and some were from minor trades, but there were a lot of nearly-free pitchers on the roster last year. For the most part, they crashed and burned, which is to be expected. The hope here is that you can find one or two diamonds in the rough. Diamond in the rough could be a bit strong, but Phillips Valdez was certainly at the top of the list among success stories from last summer. If he wants to reach that diamond status, though, he’s going to have to prove he wasn’t just a one-year wonder, and a one-year wonder in a shortened season at that.

Valdez was quite effective last year, to be fair, at least if you’re looking just at the results. Over the course of 30 13 innings, the righty pitched to a 3.26 ERA. He was able to throw multiple innings out of the bullpen and on a pitching staff that acted as a batting practice throwing machine for opposing offenses every day, it was refreshing to have someone in which you could have some confidence when he was on the mound. As someone who sat through pretty much all 60 of those games, that performance was not taken for granted.

However, we’re not looking back at 2020 anymore. Right now it’s about looking forward to 2021, and there Valdez finds himself on the fringe of being the roster at all, as we discussed earlier this morning. It seems a little unfair given how he pitched last year relative to the rest of the roster, particularly when you consider that they didn’t exactly overhaul the bullpen this year. Still, despite the results last season there are reasons to be skeptical.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

One is that while the ERA was good, the peripherals showed a much more average-at-best kind of pitcher. The righty pitched to a 4.38 FIP, striking out 22 percent of batters while walking nearly 12 percent. Adjusting for park effects, his peripherals were essentially league-average (99 FIP-), compared to an ERA- of 72. Given the small sample size, it’s not unreasonable to have that discrepancy give you some pause. And when you throw in that he was not exactly a hot commodity prior to the season — he was a waiver claim, after all — the possibility of the 2020 ERA being a fluke becomes greater.

With Valdez, however, it could make sense that he is the kind of pitcher who doesn’t really adhere to typical evaluation processes because he is not like many other pitchers in the game. He does not come at you with overpowering stuff, but instead leans extremely heavily on his changeup, which is not something you see much out of the bullpen. According to Baseball Savant, he threw his changeup 49 percent of the time, which unsurprisingly comes in as his most-used pitch. For some context, over the last two years only five pitchers have thrown their changeup at a higher rate over the course of a season: Luis Avilán (twice), Tommy Kahnle, Cesar Valdez, and Devin Williams.

The good news here for Valdez is that it as a really good pitch, so it made sense that he continued to throw it at such a high rate. Again per Baseball Savant, he allowed a wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) of just .277 against the offering, and that was actually a bit higher than the expected wOBA, which is based in part on quality of contact. Further, he induced whiffs on 37 percent of swings. So he certainly wasn’t succeeding in spite of his changeup.

But as we say here all the time when we talk about specific pitches: Nothing happens in a vacuum. In this case, what I mean is that Valdez’s approach being so unorthodox could have had a big part in the changeup being so effective. Batters aren’t typically looking for a barrage of changeups, particularly against a reliever. And remember, Valdez was not a top prospect nor did he have much of a major-league track record, so there wasn’t a whole lot of advanced scouting on him. It’s not unreasonable to think that he had that success from catching batters off guard, but coming at them again with the same approach in the next season could have much worse results.

And so he’s kind of left with two choices. One is to keep rolling like this and hoping that his changeup really is good enough to keep throwing nearly half the time. There aren’t a whole lot of relievers in my lifetime I can remember who succeeded with that approach. The other option would be to turn more to his other pitches, which is mainly a sinker. The issue is his sinker is not really a lead pitch either, as it gets some weak contact and ground balls but he doesn’t miss many bats with it.

Valdez deserves another chance in the majors after being one of the few pitchers who actually was competent on this team a year ago, and he’ll get it. It may not be to start the season, but he’ll get his chance before too long, and I suspect we’re going to see a whole lot of changeups yet again. That’s the reason I’m skeptical even after that performance last year, though. It’s a good pitch, and it’s certainly not impossible I’m proven wrong here, but it seems like a lot of the success was based on just how rare it is to throw it at such a high rate. Trying that again in a full season just seems like pushing your luck.