HOUSTON — After another home run in a miserable stretch filled with them, Framber Valdez turned back toward the pitcher’s mound and lit a fuse. His next pitch struck Seattle shortstop José Caballero’s left calf, causing chaos between two clubs that already can’t stand each other.
Caballero threw his arms in the air and yelled something toward Valdez. The Astros’ animated southpaw approached Caballero, cupping his hand to his ear as if to say he couldn’t hear him. Benches and bullpens emptied. Julio Rodríguez wrapped his arms around Valdez and walked him toward second base to settle simmering tensions.
“Caballero reacted a little bit crazy there,” Valdez said through an interpreter. “It was a bad pitch. I hit him by mistake. It wasn’t intentional. Obviously hit by pitches happen in the game. He reacted a little bit aggressively, so I reacted as well. It’s part of the game, things happen.”
If not for Rodríguez and Seattle third baseman Eugenio Suárez stepping in, the scene may have escalated. What unfolded still represented a nadir for Valdez’s vexing second-half spiral. The 29-year-old southpaw spent the first half of the season as the American League’s best starter.
For most of the second half, Valdez has been anything but. His implosion on Saturday night catalyzed a loss, caused benches to clear and allowed the Mariners to creep within 1 1/2 games of Houston for second place in the American League West.
“Trash. I thought it was a bad outing for me,” Valdez said after the 10-3 loss. “I thought it was bad. I made it to the fifth inning, but I thought it was a bad outing for me.”
Valdez surrendered a season-high 10 hits and six earned runs to the Seattle Mariners. Opponents have scored six earned runs against Valdez during three of his past five starts. Valdez has a 5.82 ERA across his past nine starts — a stretch that includes a no-hitter. Remove it and the number inflates to 6.94. Valdez awoke on June 3 with a 2.16 ERA. He exited Saturday with a 3.55 mark.
That no-hitter against an anemic Cleveland Guardians lineup on Aug. 1 appears nothing more than an outlier to Valdez’s steep second-half decline. Stopping it must be the Astros’ foremost goal across their final 38 games.
“After the no-hitter, I’ve been trying to pitch the exact same way I did that game. I’ve been trying to execute my pitches and haven’t been doing that,” Valdez said. “Unfortunately it’s part of the game. Sometimes bad things happen, you just have to continue working hard, try to move forward and hopefully get better results.”
Valdez does not deserve all of the blame for Saturday night’s outcome. The lineup played a second straight game without Kyle Tucker, who is battling an undisclosed illness. Jose Altuve made a baserunning blunder in the first inning that ruined an early threat against Seattle starter Logan Gilbert. Center fielder Jake Meyers took a poor route on Cade Marlowe’s second-inning triple and then hesitated while picking up the baseball he overran.
“We didn’t give him a lot of support early and it seems like we weren’t alert early in the game and I think it probably got to Framber some,” manager Dusty Baker said. “That’s part of maturing.”
For Valdez, maturing must be measured on an outing-by-outing basis. Minutes after throwing his no-hitter earlier this month, Valdez acknowledged he had not been completely focused during some of his prior outings. The start before it, Valdez incited a benches-clearing incident against the Texas Rangers by appearing to throw at two batters.
Valdez continues to seek counsel from one of the team’s sports psychologists, but he can sometimes veer into a headspace many thought he’d left behind. Tiny things like a borderline call or a bad defensive play can throw him off course.
“I think he’s losing focus a little bit,” veteran catcher Martín Maldonado said on Saturday night.
Valdez claimed he has harnessed “the same focus since the no-hitter,” but what unfolded on Saturday suggests something is still amiss. He allowed a baserunner in every inning he threw while prolonging some concerning trends.
Seattle seemed to have no trouble elevating Valdez’s sinker, which does not have the same depth it did during the first half of the season. Valdez averaged 24.2 inches of vertical drop on his sinker last season. He entered Saturday’s start generating 20.5 inches this season. Valdez is throwing the pitch harder, too, which can impact the movement and neutralize one of his most valuable traits.
At his best, Valdez spots his sinker down in the strike zone, where opponents smash it into the ground. No American League starter generates more ground balls. On Saturday, he collected just five groundball outs. Rodríguez, Ty France and Teoscar Hernández all had line-drive base hits against Valdez’s sinker. Marlowe’s second-inning triple arrived against an elevated sinker, too.
“He’s not as down in the zone as he (usually) is with his sinker. Probably a little flatter, a little more elevated in the zone, so it’s easier to lift,” pitching coach Josh Miller said last week. “The shape of his sinker isn’t as depth-y when he’s throwing harder and it probably takes away from it being located down.”
Teams have long taken an opposite-field approach against Valdez, hoping to stack their lineups with right-handed hitters who can shoot balls into right field. Baker acknowledged on Saturday that Valdez needs to adjust now that the tactic is working.
Maldonado mentioned that Valdez does not trust his cutter, which can help him to neutralize hitters and keep them off his sinker or two breaking balls. Valdez has thrown 31 total cutters across his past five starts. He threw 26 in one start on June 20, 83 in May and 93 in June.
Finding some faith in that pitch could make teams less inclined to sit on a sinker Valdez isn’t executing and opponents are elevating. He’s allowed 10 home runs in his past nine starts. He surrendered 11 across all 31 starts last season.
Dylan Moore maintained the trend in the fifth inning on Saturday, socking an elevated sinker 357 feet the other way. The two-run shot widened Seattle’s lead to four and brought Caballero to bat. Valdez plunked him immediately.
“Framber was frustrated from what I saw,” Servais said. “Players handle it differently. He was frustrated.”
(Top photo of Julio Rodríguez and Hector Neris restraining Framber Valdez after both benches cleared in the fifth inning: Bob Levey / Getty Images)