What do you say about a 35-year-old right-hander who had not pitched in the majors since 2017, throws mostly changeups, was the Mexican League Pitcher of the Year last season, and now has an ERA of 0.00 in 10 1/3 innings and five outings with the Orioles?
You say you’re happy he’s on their team and it was good fortune and apparently a great move to sign him as a minor league free agent Jan. 9.
In his latest strong outing for the Orioles, right-hander César Valdez pitched three scoreless innings Saturday at Yankee Stadium. He had no margin of error, entering a 1-1 game in the seventh. He pitched through the ninth, throwing 34 changeups out of 42 pitches and keeping the game tied. New York could have won via a walk-off against him in the ninth, but he retired the side in order.
“That’s unbelievable, incredible,” manager Brandon Hyde said after that game. “Three innings, tie game, no panic. He’s throwing the dead fish (changeup) up there. Just great pitching. Uses all of his pitches, different arm angles, different looks and pitches. It’s fun to watch.”
Giving hitters different looks is important to Valdez, who is throwing two pitches, mixing in a two-seam sinker a bit with a lot of changeups.
“I’ve been able to do that through time,” he said Sunday through team translator Ramón Alarcón. “Have had the opportunity to play in different leagues. And every time up there I’m trying to change something. Either the windup or my release point. I’m trying for the hitter not to be as comfortable. For them to be always on their toes, and that is my main goal.”
But even he admits surprise in getting off to such a great start with Baltimore.
“I’d say yes. I’ve had the opportunity to be at the big league level twice before, and unfortunately, I wasn’t able to perform as I wanted to,” said Valdez, whose last big league appearance before this year came for Toronto on Aug. 4, 2017. “So, I’m very thankful for the opportunity. I feel pretty well and comfortable right now.”
He has plenty of young Orioles teammates, and he said he’s fit in well with them.
“I feel really comfortable with my teammates,” he said. “They’ve come up with a nickname for me. They call me ‘The Chief.’ I feel comfortable in the bullpen and watching my teammates that throw really hard, 98, 99, 100. I can’t do that, but am trying to perfect what I can do. Trying to do that as often as I can.”
“The Chief” is making it work for the Orioles through his first five appearances. He provides length out of the bullpen, and lefties are just 3-for-15 (.200) against him while right-handers are batting .095 (2-for-21) with eight strikeouts. That changeup - the dead fish - has been a weapon deadly mostly to opponent bats thus far.
“I’ve used my changeup now over an extended period of time,” he said. “I’m really comfortable with it and can throw it from different angles. Which is what I want to do to keep the hitters on their toes. Right now, very comfortable that I can throw it in any count.
“The dead fish is a really good name.”
Means gets it going: The Orioles might be wondering how their offense disappeared in New York, but getting the starting pitching they got from Dean Kremer and John Means the last two days restored order to an improving rotation.
Means allowed one run to the Mets and one to the Yankees in two starts on the road. He lowered his ERA from 8.10 to 5.63 at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium. The O’s have just six starts of six innings or more all year and Means has two in a row. They have five quality starts all year and Means has two in a row.
“John threw the ball great,” Hyde said in his postgame interview. “Just left that one hanger to the lefty there. Besides that, I thought he backed up his last start with a similar performance. Really good fastball command. Loved seeing the changeup come back now. But yeah, against a really good lineup he pitched six outstanding innings.”
Means said more consistent fastball command has been a key these last two games. And he had a fastball that was often touching the mid 90s earlier this year. Then he eased up a tick or two on the gas pedal to command it better. His average fastball velocity versus the Mets was 93.8 mph and it was 93.3 mph yesterday - his two lowest game velocities in 2020.
“It’s nice to know I have the extra velo if I need to,” he said. “I know it’s there. But right now, it’s just more about hitting spots. I was kind of cutting the ball when I was trying to throw harder, and now that I’m more loose and fluid I think that the velocity might be a tick down, but it might play a tick up because it’s in a better location. Trying to get back to feeling right, and I think I have been the last couple of outings.”
The Orioles got swept at Yankee Stadium. Despite that and despite the fact they play first-place teams Atlanta and Tampa Bay over the next eight games, Means expects better days ahead, starting tonight at Camden Yards.
“It was tough. It was a tough one,” he said. “You like to beat those guys and try to get a leg up in the playoff race. I really do have confidence that we’re going to bounce back. That this next series is going to go well. It was kind of a wake-up call, and I think every team needs that.”