Senators Notebook: Phillips Valdez turning the corner with more consistent arm slot
Phillips Valdez showed flashes of brilliance along with the growing pains of a then 24-year-old as he made 16 starts for the Harrisburg Senators last season. He failed to get out of the first inning against the Reading Fightin’ Phils on July 3rd and then followed that up with back-to-back starts where he walked 7 and 6 batters in only 4.0 and 3.2 innings respectively. But then he was also the same guy who finished the year with four straight quality starts as he used the natural movement of his pitches to work out of traffic.
2017 marks the first season Valdez is pitching exclusively out of the bullpen. The decision to convert the lithe Dominican to a full-time reliever wasn’t an easy one for the Washington brass but it’s where they believe he ultimately has the most value. “Over the past few years we started him to maximize his reps, continue to develop himself as a pitcher, and be able to field his position,” Mark Scialabba, Nationals’ Director of Player Development, said. “But with his repertoire, we felt like his best shot as a big leaguer would probably be out of the bullpen.”
“I give him a lot of credit to be able to get up to Double-A as a starter and have success last year. It shows you that he can help us down the road. The next evolution in his career is getting this opportunity to see if he can do it in short stints with high leverage situations.”
In his first 10 appearances out of the pen, Valdez looked similar to how he did as a starter. Some days good (2 IP, 0 R, 2 H, 3 K on April 15 against Bowie), some days bad (1 IP, 3 R, 3 H, 1 BB on May 6 against Hartford). But by mid-May with a 6.00 ERA, 1.73 WHIP, and batting average against of .300 you can guess that the bad outings outnumbered the good. His early season struggles all culminated with the right-hander going on the disabled list on May 16. Pitching coach Chris Michalak used the reliever’s stint on the DL as an opportunity to improve some mechanical issues in his delivery. Michalak said they compacted Valdez’s delivery a little bit, improved his posture to stay on top of the ball, and got his arm slot in a more natural position that he can easily repeat.
The teacher sees the work of the student paying off since being activated on May 26. “He’s doing a good job of hitting a consistent slot where he’s getting run and sink on the ball,” Michalak said. “It may not have that much depth to it, but it’s down in the zone.”
In his three most recent appearances, Valdez has worked 3.2 scoreless innings allowing only one hit, a single on Saturday in Erie, while needing only 36 pitches to record 11 outs. You can see the differences in both posture and arm slot as well as the movement Valdez gets on his pitches before and after the tweaks to his delivery.
Another benefit of pitching in relief for Valdez is his ability to monitor his checkpoints and fine-tune his delivery on the fly. “Coming out of the pen, he doesn’t think he has to sustain it for such a long period of time,” Michalak said. “I think he’s at a point now where if something does go wrong, it’s not going to be four or five hitters for him to find out what’s going on. It’s only four or five pitches and he’ll figure it out. If it goes awry, it’s a minor adjustment instead of a major overhaul.”
“We like what we see so far,” Scialabba said. “He showed really well in the spring and impressed some of our staff that hadn’t seen him before. We’re proud of where he is right now.”
The offense, once rounding into form in May, has been stifled in the first five games of June. The Senators have hit only .150 (21 for 140) since the calendar turned and have been shutout twice. That’s a far cry from their .266 clip in May that was in the top half among Eastern League teams and only six points behind the leader.
The seven runs they have scored in the five game since June 1 have all come via home runs. Orioles’ legendary manager Earl Weaver might have liked that approach, but he also preferred the three-run variety. For the Senators, they’ve only managed solo and two-run home runs during this stretch.
Despite having a variety of players that can go deep, as evident by the five different batters (Isaac Ballou, Khayyan Norfork, Neftali Soto, Mario Lisson, and Jose Marmolejos) who did so in the last five games, the Senators can’t rely on the long ball. They need to grind at-bats, sustain rallies, and turn the lineup over if they expect to compete on a nightly basis.
BROOMS OUT IN ERIE
The last time the Senators were swept in a four-game series at Erie was all the way back on April 23-26, 2009 as Ryan Strieby and Maxwell Leon drove in a combined 19 runs for the SeaWolves in the set.