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One Big Question: Can Phillips Valdez enhance his slider?

Or perhaps find a new third pitch.

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Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/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 Boston Red Sox 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. 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, at least as things are scheduled right now. Obviously, the lockout may change the timing of the season, and it also means we will likely see more additions of new faces. If need be, we will add some weekend posts to fit any and all additions to the 40-man before Opening Day. You can catch up with every post by following this link. With that, today we cover Phillips Valdez.

The Question: Can Phillips Valdez further develop his slider?

The first year of the Chaim Bloom era in Boston was decidedly not a great one. Now, that’s not really the fault of the then-new Red Sox Chief Baseball Officer, especially if you (like me) believe trading Mookie Betts was an ownership decision rather than a front office one. That said, the reputation was one for finding diamonds in the rough on the pitching staff, and with the team dumpster diving for a lot of arms leading up to that season, and during it for that matter, the hope was they’d be able to find a few.

As it turned out, the closest thing the Red Sox found to a diamond in the rough on the pitching staff was Phillips Valdez, who was perhaps the best pitcher on the team that year. Obviously that says more about the Red Sox staff in 2020 than anything else, but Valdez was actually exciting to watch. The righty finished with a 3.26 ERA over 30 13 innings, though the 4.38 FIP suggested that perhaps the results were going to be hit with some regression over a larger sample.

And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened in 2021. Valdez ended up being more of an up-and-down pitcher for the Red Sox last season, and was the guy they turned to when they needed multiple innings in a blowout. In all, he threw 40 innings and finished with a 5.85 ERA, though this time his FIP came in a bit better, finishing at 4.67.

Looking beyond the numbers, Valdez is a fascinating pitcher to watch just because of his style. When Dennis Eckersley is in the booth while Valdez is pitching, it becomes even more fun to watch because Eck is, well I’m not sure if it’s more enamored or just confused, with Valdez’s pitching style, which consists of a whole lot of changeups. It’s very rare to see a pitcher, particularly in this era, work off of his changeup, but that’s what we get here. In each of his two seasons with Boston Valdez has led his arsenal with the changeup, throwing the pitch roughly half the time in each campaign.

And to be fair to Valdez, it is a good pitch. He throws it against both righties and lefties, though more often against the latter, and got whiffs on over 30 percent of swings last season while also inducing plenty of weak contact. It’s certainly a risky proposition to throw so many offspeed pitches down in the zone in this era of power hitters with uppercut swings littered throughout every lineup, but he’s been able to make it work with this pitch specifically.

The issue is that he doesn’t really have another great pitch. As would be expected, he does also throw a sinker, but there are problems there. For one thing, fastball/changeup relievers don’t really exist in the modern era of baseball, and really you have to search hard for great relievers who have relied on that arsenal. Trevor Hoffman did it, but he’s the exception rather than the rule. And if you are going to do it, both pitches need to be great. The changeup is, or at least bordering on great, but the fastball is more mediocre. It averages 92-93 mph in terms of velocity, it doesn’t miss bats, and in each of the last two seasons it has produced an expected wOBA (on the same scale as OBP) of at least .360, with that number exceeding .380 last season.

So the solution here is to either overhaul the sinker, whether that means switching how he throws that pitch or perhaps leaning on a four-seamer more, which he has thrown extremely sparingly in his career, or further developing his third pitch in a slider. This is not a big part of his arsenal, as Valdez threw the breaking ball under six percent of the time in 2020 and just over 10 percent last season. That said, he did start throwing it more as the year went along, so it’s reasonable to think it could be used more this season after some work in the offseason.

Boston Red Sox v Detroit Tigers Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

That work, if it came, was necessary, as the performance of the pitch got worse the more he threw it and batters were ready for it. While a breaking ball is a key for most relievers in today’s era of baseball, Valdez’s hasn’t been up to snuff, especially last season. The big selling point for a slider in a reliever’s arsenal is typically to rack up whiffs, but this slider struggled to do so, inducing whiffs on just 18 percent of swings. Ideally you want that number to at least be over 20 percent, and hopefully closer to 30.

Looking at the metrics on Baseball Savant, the problem seems pretty clear to be one of a lack of horizontal movement. On average his slider breaks between five and six inches horizontally, which is well below the average slider in today’s game, which typically breaks eight to nine inches horizontally. In my eyes, there are two paths forward here. One is just to work on the slider, perhaps working with guys like Tanner Houck and Chris Sale to get more break, or to shift to a cutter. The idea there would be to add a little more velocity so that the lack of break is less damning.

Valdez, as things stand now, is likely on the bubble of making the roster if/when more moves are made. Given how much depth will be at a premium this year, particularly to start the season, he’s probably on the right side of the bubble, though the rule to limit options to five per year also counts against him as his role last year was to go up and down when needed. But whether it’s this year or next, at some point he needs to take a step forward to stick on a roster full-time. He has one great pitch in his changeup, but the slider is up to snuff. He either needs to figure out that pitch or find a suitable replacement to reach is full potential.

Statistics from this post from FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.