Last season, the Orioles bullpen was a pleasant surprise. In a campaign where the club wasn’t able to escape the basement of the AL East, their bullpen represented a bright spot in an otherwise dismal season.
Each of their relievers had a different way to beat opponents. Tanner Scott’s upper-90’s fastball could blow by most hitters. Paul Fry’s slider induced whiffs almost half of the time. Cesar Valdez’s changeup, which he threw more than 80% of the time, helped him dominate to the tune of a 1.26 ERA/2.14 FIP.
Yep, that’s right. You read that last sentence right.
Cesar Valdez, a 35-year-old journeyman, threw his changeup more than 80% of the time. In a league where most relievers dominate with high-90s velo, Valdez bucked the trend by throwing his 78-mph changeup more often than not, a distinction that warrants a deeper dive into his profile.
Cesar Valdez was signed as an IFA by the Diamondbacks in 2005. After five years of climbing the minor-league ladder, the righty finally made his Major-League debut in 2010, throwing 20 ineffective innings for the Diamondbacks.
After his tenure with the Snakes ended, Valdez bounced around the baseball world for the next several seasons, pitching for teams in the Dominican Winter League, the Pacific Coast League, the Mexican League, and the Chinese Professional Baseball League. Name a team around the globe; Valdez probably threw for them at one point.
After several years abroad, the Astros picked him up on a minor-league deal in time for the 2016 campaign. Over thirty frames in the hitter haven that is the Pacific Coast League, Valdez posted a strong 3.12 ERA/3.24 FIP. He made a brief cup of coffee in the Majors the following season with the Blue Jays, but was DFA’d after allowing five runs in four games. It’s worth noting that he finished the season with his changeup usage at 49.4%, tying Luis Avilan for the highest mark in the Majors.
He didn’t fare too well after signing a MiLB deal with the Blue Jays in the 2016-2017 offseason so Valdez headed to Mexico for the 2018 season to throw for the Leones de Yucatan. His 2018 campaign didn’t yield great results, but he pitched well enough in 2019 to earn a minor-league contract from the Orioles.
After the season restarted, he received an invitation to the Alternate Training Site and eventually received a call-up to the Major-League club.
In his first Major-League action in three years, Valdez performed like a seasoned vet. He held hitters to a .179 wOBA with a .262 xwOBA, a 2.14 FIP, and a 3.62 xFIP all supporting his dominance.
It wasn’t that Valdez succeeded in the bullpen that made it him unique; plenty of pitchers do that. It was how he excelled: by utilizing a bizzaro pitch more than 80% of the time.
There’s a saying in baseball: throw your best pitch most. Valdez took that advice to heart.
The righty threw his changeup 83.2% of the time in 2020. Since the pitch-tracking era begun, it’s the only pitch (fastballs, cutters, and knuckleballs aside) that has a usage rate over 80 percent, per Fangraphs.
Although it’s thrown at 78 mph, the pitch plays up due to its extreme movement profile and its unique spin.
Valdez’s changeup had a massive amount of drop, falling 10.3 inches during its path to home plate. That’s 38% better than similar changeups thrown in the Majors. The lack of spin efficiency (78%) on the pitch allows it to fall earlier, giving it its trademark drop.
As shown in the graph below, from a pitch movement standpoint, Valdez represents an anomaly.
Savant’s newest tool Spin Direction also takes a liking to it. Thanks to Spin Direction, we’re able to evaluate how batters see the pitch’s spin at the different points during ball flight.
Savant shows that he releases his changeup with a 3:15 axis (195 degrees) and by the time it reaches the plate, the ball’s axis is at 4:00 (240 degrees). Among all right-handed pitchers in 2020, only one pitcher matched Valdez’s spin direction upon release: the changeup master himself, Devin Williams.
Williams’ changeup/reverse slider/Airbender arrives at home plate at 3:30, with only 15 degrees of separation of the axis between release and arrival. But Valdez’s arrives at 4:00, giving the pitch an extra advantage.
His dominance has earned the pitch a unique nickname: the dead fish. Although that moniker doesn’t inspire the same sense of fear as Williams’ “Airbender” or James Karinchak’s “The Freezy Boi“, it’s virtually as dominant as any pitch in the game.
Of course, there’s the SSS (Small Sample Size) caveat. Valdez only threw 14.1 frames last season. It’s anyone’s guess if he can keep up this production in 2021, but considering how well he’s performing in winter ball with Tigres del Licey, I’d argue the dead fish is here to stay.
Data and Cover photo provided by Baseball Savant