HOUSTON — Astros starter Framber Valdez began Game 1 of the World Series with his bread-and-butter—his sinker. It is his most frequently used pitch, and it is also the one that allows him to generate a remarkable number of ground balls, more than any other pitcher in baseball. This is how the lefty works when he is at his best: He thrives in the lower half of the zone, pairing the sinker with a nasty curve, a combination that typically leaves hitters struggling to lift the ball off the ground.
So how else would Valdez have begun the World Series? He threw the sinker once, twice, three times to Braves lead-off hitter Jorge Soler. But there was a problem with that third one: The sinker didn’t sink. Valdez left it uncharacteristically high in the zone, and Soler made him pay, taking it deep to center field for a home run.
This was historic. (Soler became the first player in history to homer on the first at-bat of the World Series.) It also portended a poor night for Valdez. After a star-hanging performance in his last start, Game 5 of the ALCS, he simply could not follow his typical formula for success on Tuesday. The Braves consistently managed to make hard contact on his pitches and put them in the air: They hit more fly balls and line drives off him (six) than they did grounders (five). Valdez was pulled in the third inning after allowing five runs on eight hits; Houston never dug itself out of that hole and lost, 6-2.
“I left the ball up in the zone tonight, so they were able to get a lot of fly balls, a lot of line drives,” Valdez said through an interpreter. “That’s not the kind of pitcher I am.”
A matchup of Valdez and the Braves was always going to result in one side moving off its typical approach: While Valdez kept the ball on the ground this season more than any other pitcher, Atlanta hit fewer grounders than almost any other team, second only to San Francisco. In other words? Valdez’s ground-ball rate this season was slightly above 70%, Atlanta’s was about 40%, and those two numbers simply don’t fit with each other. One would have to give. And on Tuesday, right from the first batter, it was Valdez's.
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So just how did Atlanta plan to approach him? There was perhaps no one better to ask than the two Braves who lifted the ball to hit home runs off the pitcher: Soler and outfielder Adam Duvall.
“Our game plan was to try to get really good pitches to hit. Obviously, he’s not going to give you too many, but just try to shrink our zone, see him up and try to hit a fly ball,” Duvall said. “Because his sinkers are so good, and his curveball is going straight down, as well.”
Soler put it similarly.
“He’s obviously a pitcher who induces a lot of ground balls, but I think our approach was the same, just try to get it up in the air and hit a fly ball,” he said through an interpreter. “Especially for the right-handed hitters. If he goes middle, or middle-out, we’re trying to lift it over to the opposite side.”
The Braves were able to make all of that happen on Tuesday. But their eye for Valdez’s mistakes was, of course, just one piece of the puzzle. The pitcher also fell behind in the count frequently. He struggled to locate his curve at times. And perhaps most damning of all, when it came to his sinker, he consistently threw it harder than he typically does, which led to difficulty putting it where he needed to.
“He probably threw a little bit too hard, and it ends up being kind of a nothing fastball,” said Houston manager Dusty Baker. “So we had to go get him.”
Valdez averaged 92 mph on his sinker throughout the season. On Tuesday, throwing the pitch more than two dozen times, he averaged 95 mph.
“It was maybe trying to do a bit too much, throwing a bit too hard,” he said. “I was in the zone, but not exactly where I wanted to be, and not where the catcher wanted it, either.”
It was a demoralizing start. Yet Valdez has already bounced back from one of those this October—in Game 1 of the ALCS, he was pulled similarly early after struggling to execute his pitches, but he followed that rough night with eight pristine innings of one-run ball in Game 5. And in this case, the adjustment he’ll need to make for next time is obvious: He’ll have to keep the ball down in the zone.
“If I do that, I’ll be able to get my ground balls, get my outs, get my strikeouts,” he said. “It’s just a matter of not leaving the ball up in the zone as much.”
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