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César Valdez’s Miracle Pitch

It’s August 29, 2020, and the Baltimore Orioles and Buffalo (for this season) Blue Jays are playing a pretty dull game of baseball. Baltimore’s lost 11 of their last 14 games, and their sizzling (comparative to expectations) 11-7 start has turned into a lousy 14-18 mark for the year. Alex Cobb started against the Jays, but he gave up five runs in four-plus innings of work. It’s the bottom of the fifth inning, and Baltimore manager Brandon Hyde needs someone to soak up some innings. He decides to call on 35-year-old journeyman César Valdez.

This is Valdez’s first MLB appearance since 2017, when he puked up a 7.63 ERA in 30 2/3 innings split between Oakland and Toronto. His only other MLB action to this point came when he threw 20 innings of 7.65 ERA ball for the 2010 Diamondbacks. The Orioles are well into the “throw it at the wall and see what sticks” phase of their rebuild, and Valdez is the latest journeyman who’s been loaded into the catapult. There probably aren’t many who expect him to do much of note.

Valdez strikes out five Blue Jays in three innings of work. He’ll finish the 2020 season with 14 1/3 innings pitched and a sparkling 1.26 ERA. How did he do it?

The Signature Pitch

César Valdez threw 191 pitches for the Orioles in 2020, of which 159 were changeups. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is: his 83.2% usage rate for his changeup was the highest in the majors in 2020 (for changeups only, not for any pitch. Jake McGee‘s 96.4% usage rate on his four-seam fastball placed first for usage rate of any pitch). Second-place Luis Avilan threw his change a bare 58% of the time. The rest of Valdez’s arsenal isn’t too much to write home about. Both his four-seam fastball and his sinker sit around 85-87 MPH, and he only threw his slider twice. His changeup is his arsenal.

cesar valdez changeup
César Valdez’s pitch breakdown by count. Green = changeup, orange = sinker, red = four-seamer. Data courtesy of Baseball Savant. That’s a lot of green!

 

So what makes Valdez’s changeup so special? The answer is pretty simple- he generates a crazy amount of drop with the pitch. The vertical movement above average (average in this case referring to the average break of other MLB pitch types within +/- 2MPH and from within +/- 0.5 feet of extension and release. If you want to read more about that kind of nerd stuff, click here) that Valdez induced on his changeup in 2020 was tied for most in the league with Anaheim’s Noe Ramirez. That was a really long sentence- essentially, compared to pitchers with similar changeup velocities and release points, César Valdez’s dropped the most (well, and Noe Ramirez’s dropped the most too, but we’re not talking about him today). Purely numerically, Valdez’s change is an absolute bowling ball of a pitch.

The Film Room

So all these numbers are cool and everything, but we need a look at what the pitch actually looks like. YouTube footage of Valdez in MLB games is kind of difficult to find (it’s almost like a reliever on a terrible team who’s spent most of his recent baseball career in the minors and abroad isn’t getting much national press). Fortunately, MLB’s Film Room feature has us covered here. Here is César Valdez facing down Atlanta’s Marcell Ozuna on September 16 of this past season. Ozuna was one of the very best hitters in baseball in 2020. He led the National League in home runs (18) and total bases (145). Ozuna was a paragon of plate discipline as well- his 14.2% walk rate was nearly six percent higher than the major league average walk rate of 8.3%. Let’s see how he measures up to Valdez. CLICK THIS TEXT TO SEE THE VIDEO.

  1. changeup
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  5. changeup (dugout)

Did you see that? If you didn’t, the link to video of the at-bat is HERE.

That’s all gross, all the time. Valdez made one of the best hitters in baseball look completely helpless with five straight changeups- no fastballs, no breaking balls. He achieved a similar kind of success in that crazy first outing against the Blue Jays in Buffalo:

Same pitches, same deal. Valdez induced some ugly hacks from a young, free-swinging Buffalo lineup, and all those K’s came on his deadly changeup. The MLB Film Room archives and pitch clips from Statcast show the same approach to pitching. One key to Valdez’s success in 2020 that’s visible in the videos was his pinpoint control of his signature pitch. While Valdez didn’t generate many strikeouts (7.5 K/9), he didn’t walk anyone either (1.5 BB/9). The heatmap for his changeup demonstrates the top-notch control that Valdez has on his best pitch:

cesar valdez changeup heatmap
Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

 

That incredible command allowed Valdez to generate swings and misses (when batters swung at a César Valdez changeup in 2020, they missed 31.6% of the time) and generate lots of ground balls. That’s a recipe for sustainable success.

Looking Forward

Is Valdez’s 2020 performance repeatable? He probably won’t achieve anything particularly close to that 1.26 ERA over a full season workload, but his peripherals are pretty rosy. His 2.14 FIP is also pretty damned good, and his 3.62 xFIP/3.58 SIERA (both of which incorporate batted-ball outcomes in order to predict pitcher production) like him too. Valdez rocked a 52.3% groundball rate in 2020 (unsurprising when viewed alongside his changeup’s movement profile), and didn’t give up much hard contact.

cesar valdez changeup
Image courtesy of The Athletic.

Statcast is also a fan of Valdez’s work. He kept his launch angles low, and his 89.3 MPH exit velocity against hovered only a smidge above league average. Thanks to his high grounder rate and low launch angles, slightly higher than average exit velocities are plenty survivable (as evidenced by his .262 xwOBA, well below the league average mark of .321). All signs point to regression back to the mean, but the mean for César Valdez is still either very good or very, very good.

Of course, all of this analysis comes with the eternal SMALL SAMPLE SIZE caveat, but that’s the trouble of trying to analyze much of anything from the abbreviated 2020 MLB season. Let’s set small-sample worries aside for a moment. César Valdez is a special pitcher who throws a special, special pitch, and any baseball fan would be well-advised to keep an eye on him going forward. In the meantime, watch him strike out Jordany Valdespin (remember that guy?) during an outing with the Tigres del Licey in the Dominican Winter League.

Pure, uncut filth. The bomb!

You can create your own MLB Film Room highlight reels by following this link HERE. Seriously, it’s the best way to find footage of MLB players and generate custom highlight reels. If you’re reading this, you should really check it out.

If you want to read another piece on another underrated weird reliever who succeeds with one pitch, click this link.

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