When I saw the Mariners had claimed Phillips Valdéz on waivers from Texas, here’s what I guessed about him before opening his FanGraphs page: 28-year-old righty with a mid-90s fastball and a K/9 of 11 and a BB/9 of 5.
What can I say, the Mariners have a type.
To be fair, those K-BB numbers are in a very limited, sixteen-inning sample in the majors last year, when he was used strictly as a reliever; before that, in a long minor-league career spanning time in Cleveland, Washington, and Texas’s systems, Valdéz split time as a starter and a reliever, often logging 100-inning seasons before Washington committed to making him a reliever in 2017, and then de-committed from that in 2018.
Valdéz made Baseball America’s Top 30 for Washington back in 2015 as a quick-rising prospect with a mid-90s fastball, slider, and developing changeup, but he struggled in his first taste of the high minors, posting an FIP of 4.46 at Double-A Harrisburg in 2016. He repeated the level with improvement in 2017 only to run into the same buzzsaw in Triple-A again in 2018 and 2019. Command has been an issue for Valdéz, as he routinely walks around 9% of batters he sees. The culprit here might be a funky windup that’s designed to hide the ball and create deception, but results in Valdéz balancing stork-like on his back leg for an exceptionally long time, requiring his core to do an excessive amount of work in keeping his lithe 6’3” frame balanced and often resulting in his weight shifting too far back. (One other potential culprit: it looks like Valdéz has been through a grip of mechanics changes; here he is in early 2017 with some pretty disjointed-looking mechanics, and later in 2017 with a Corry Gearrin-like quickstep.) This could also be causing inconsistencies in his arm slot; Valdéz delivers from a 3⁄4 slot, starting with his arm cocked and his chest parallel to the third base dugout, and doesn’t come straight to the plate until the ball is already out of his hand. Valdéz sits 93-95 with his fastball, but it seems like there’s potentially more velocity in his arm if he could iron out some of these mechanics and drive straight to the plate. There’s some natural whip to his arm action and some late movement on the fastball that, if maximized, could be very exciting in a late-inning-type role.
The breaking ball Valdéz throws is described as a “slurve”; you can see two of them in the video above for strikes two and three. The first slurve is more curve-y, with some good late fade and bite, while the second one has a little more traditional slider action. The Mariners have a similar slurve-thrower in their system already in Strikeout King Sam Delaplane (his official title), so it will be interesting to see if they keep Valdéz’s breaking pitch as a slurve, try to separate it more into two distinct pitches, or work on pushing the pitch into one category or the other to encourage consistency and better pitch tunneling.
Valdéz is an interesting waiver claim days after the Mariners let reliever Anthony Bass, the most consistent arm out of the pen last season down the stretch, go on waivers, along with less-consistent-but-promising Matt Wisler. At the time, I interpreted the move to mean it would be open season on bullpen jobs for guys like Art Warren, Sam Delaplane, Reggie McClain, and the other young relievers. But the Mariners’ analytics team must have seen something in Valdéz’s numbers that made the near-28-year-old appealing, and I’m sure biomechanics expert Brian DeLunas is right now going over film of that funky delivery to see what can be streamlined and made consistent. The Mariners have plucked players out of Texas and Washington’s systems before, with Connor Sadzeck and Austin Adams, respectively, and Valdéz has spent time in both those systems, positioning him right at the center of Dipoto’s favorite market inefficiency, alongside “catchers from the White Sox system.” It will be interesting to see if the Mariners can extract some value from the 6’3” and lithe Valdéz, who does seem to have some promising raw materials to work with, despite his advanced age. Two days into the off-season, and I’m already anxious to see what Valdéz can do. Hurry up, spring.