Sometimes you see something on a baseball field that hits you immediately, and you know, yup, you’d like to see more of that. Maybe it’s an ace pitcher lighting up the radar gun or a phenom position player showcasing his all-around skills all over the diamond. Or maybe it’s an unfamiliar veteran reliever baffling major-league hitters with a unique, devastating changeup.
That’s precisely what César Valdez did in a 2020 season that had no shortage of weirdness.
Last January, the Orioles took a flier on Valdez, signing the then 34-year-old to a minor-league deal. He didn’t make the Opening Day roster and was assigned to the team’s alternate training site in Bowie. He hung around, and when he was finally called upon in late August, he was ready.
Relying on a “dead fish” changeup that he threw more than 80 percent of the time, Valdez didn’t allow an earned run in his first six appearances. Overall, he finished with a 1.26 ERA and 2.14 FIP in 14.1 innings. He struck out 12 batters, walked only three and even collected three saves in the abbreviated season. In just a few short weeks, he had become one of the team’s most trusted options out of the bullpen.
That would be an impressive story for any journeyman, but it doesn’t do Valdez’s story justice. He could have thrown in the towel a long time ago. Signed all the way back in 2005 by the Diamondbacks as an amateur free agent, he only appeared in the majors in two seasons before 2020: in 2010, with Arizona, and then in 2017 with two teams, the Athletics and Blue Jays. Valdez pitched a grand total of 50.2 innings in those opportunities.
For a while, teams played hot potato with him. Between 2010 and 2011, Valdez was traded to the Pirates, had his contract purchased by the Marlins, was again purchased by the Blue Jays, and then was released a couple days later. He remained out of MLB-affiliated baseball and played in foreign leagues for the next 4.5 years.
At the beginning of 2016, he signed with the Astros and pitched well in Triple-A (3.12 ERA, 3.24 FIP in 138.1 innings) before moving on to the A’s (free agent) and then Blue Jays (waiver claim) in 2017. That was it with major-league clubs before the O’s brought him in. (Nathan Ruiz of The Baltimore Sun provided a more in-depth look into Valdez’s odyssey that’s a must-read.)
But Valdez is back now, and there’s no secret about how he’s getting it done. It always comes back to the changeup. According to Baseball Savant data, Valdez threw his changeup nearly half the time back in 2017. In 2020, that number jumped to 83.2 percent. No other pitcher finished anywhere near that number; the next closest was Luis Avilan of the Yankees at 58 percent.
Unlike many pitchers who use changeups often, Valdez’s offering isn’t playing off of his fastball. It’s his main weapon, and for good reason. In a piece by MLB.com’s Mike Petriello praising pitchers with effective spin rates and direction, he compared Valdez’s changeup to the excellent one thrown by the Brewers’ Devin Williams, who won the National League Rookie of the Year award last season. As Petriello noted, “No righty changeup is delivered with [Williams’] kind of spin, with one exception.” That exception is Valdez.
Valdez’s changeup is one of the slowest in the majors, and it’s also among the best in terms of vertical drop. Opposing batters couldn’t handle it. Combined, they put up a .178 wOBA and an expected wOBA of only .244 against Valdez’s changeup.
Valdez will switch up the velocity of his changeup, throwing it anywhere from the low-70s to low-80s. He’ll alter his vertical release point, sometimes dropping down as much as two feet. He also possesses pinpoint control with the pitch, routinely targeting an area that’s low and away to right-handed batters and down and in to lefties. He even tinkers with his windup to mess with opposing hitters’ timing.
Valdez is everything you’d envision in a soft-tossing, crafty veteran arm, except he relies almost exclusively on one pitch to get the job done. He’s basically a knuckleballer with more flair.
Valdez in 2020 was found money for the O’s, and his solid performance all but guarantees him a shot at duplicating his efforts in 2021. Whether he can keep being effective is unanswerable — we’re looking at what he did in 14-plus innings, after all — but it helps that many teams are desperate for innings this coming season. So much about pitcher usage in 2021 is up in the air because of reduced (or nonexistent) workloads last season, and Valdez’s ability to pitch in short bursts or as a long reliever or starting option is useful.
This much is clear: The Orioles are slowly working their young arms in at the major-league level, but there is still a lot of work to go around. They’ll need innings — and it’s even better if they’re quality innings. Valdez, who turns 36 soon, is still a question mark. His 2020 may have been a flash in the pan, but he should get the chance to prove himself. Imagine how much fun it’ll be if he does.
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