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How César Valdez’s ‘dead fish’ changeup became a weapon at the backend of the Orioles' bullpen

Before César Valdez journeyed around the world and soft-tossed his way to the back end of the Orioles' bullpen, he was a quiet 21-year-old in Yakima, Washington, pitching stateside professionally for the first time.

It was there, as a young right-hander for the Arizona Diamondbacks' rookie-ball affiliate, that the changeup Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has dubbed “the dead fish” came to life.

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Nicknamed “El Jefe” — The Chief — by his fellow Orioles relievers as their elder statesmen, the 35-year-old has pitched to a 1.46 ERA in his seven outings with Baltimore. But this success comes after he began his professional career, reached the majors, failed, pitched in country after country, made it back to the big leagues and failed again.

Valdez signed with Arizona out of his native Dominican Republic at 20 years old, on the older end for international prospects. He spent a season with the Diamondbacks' Dominican Summer League team before joining the short-season Yakima Bears for the 2006 campaign. The organization’s philosophy at that time was that every pitcher must try to learn to throw a changeup. The responsibility for teaching them fell on Yakima pitching coach Erik Sabel.

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To this day, Valdez credits Sabel for his changeup’s origins. Sabel was unaware his teachings remained in use.

“I didn’t even know he was still pitching,” Sabel told The Baltimore Sun this week. “I just kind of lost track of him.”

Sabel can’t be blamed for that. Since their one season together, Valdez has pitched for teams based in six countries.

Valdez’s time in the United States began in Yakima, where he arrived “armed and ready with a pretty nasty sinker,” Sabel said. The natural hand and wrist movement on the pitch led Sabel to believe his changeup could be especially effective. He was right.

“It always had that finish,” Sabel said. “It just would dive. It was dead. Boom, it was gone. It’d get there, look like a strike at the bottom of the zone, and then it would disappear.

“It looked like a breaking ball because it would change planes that much.”

A decade and a half later, that’s still true. Of pitchers who have thrown at least 100 changeups this season, Valdez is one of only two who have averaged 50 inches of vertical drop on the pitch, according to Statcast. Despite throwing his changeup 83.5% of the time, Valdez has limited opponents to a .154 average with it while more than a third of batters' swings against it have missed.

Valdez varies his release point and velocity for the pitch, having thrown it as slow as 74 mph and as hard as 81 mph, making it deceptive despite the fact hitters can basically guess what’s coming.

“I’ve been able to do that through time,” Valdez said through team interpreter Ramón Alarcón. “I’ve had the opportunity to play [in] different leagues, and every time out there, I’m trying to change something, either the windup or my release. I’m trying for the hitter not to be as comfortable, for them to always be on their toes.”

That’s been the case since those early days in Yakima. Sabel recalled how the Northwest League’s young hitters were more than capable of handling fastballs but left the batter’s box baffled by Valdez’s changeup.

Almost 15 years later, in only his third season pitching in the majors since his 2010 debut, Valdez is finally finding that same success at this level.

“I don’t know how many changeups he has, but five of them do five different things,” Orioles pitching coach Doug Brocail said. "I think the guys look up to him because it’s such an awesome story. It’s awe-inspiring.

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“It’s just awesome that this guy’s here and we’ve given him a shot to get back to the big leagues.”

‘A king at home’

After leading Sabel’s Yakima staff in innings, strikeouts and wins, Valdez continued to climb in Arizona’s minor league system, reaching the majors in 2010 at 25 years old. He struggled in nine appearances and was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates that offseason. In July 2011 alone, he bounced from Pittsburgh to Miami to Toronto, with the Blue Jays releasing him before the month’s end.

Valdez pitched in the Venezuelan and Puerto Rican winter leagues, then latched onto a Mexican League roster. He spent the next four campaigns in the league with a stop in the Chinese Professional Baseball League while also pitching for the Tigres del Licey in the Dominican Winter League every year.

His father, Miguel, passed away in 2015, leaving him with added motivation to return to the major leagues.

“He was one of the people that always told me to keep trying, to never give up, you never know what could happen, keep on going,” Valdez said. “I really wanted to do it for him and for myself, to keep on trying, keep pushing.”

Before the 2016 season, he signed with the Houston Astros, where current Orioles executive vice president/general manager Mike Elias and assistant general manager Sig Mejdal worked at the time. He went 12-1 with a 3.12 ERA in 30 outings for their Triple-A affiliate, but he never got an opportunity in the majors.

The Oakland Athletics signed him early that offseason, which he again spent with Licey. After two starts with Triple-A Nashville, the A’s promoted him for his first major league appearance in seven years. But his four outings with Oakland saw him perform worse than he had as a 25-year-old Diamondback.

The Blue Jays, the club that had released him to begin his international odyssey, claimed him on waivers. Valdez spent the rest of the 2017 season going between the majors and Triple-A Buffalo, but rejoined the Mexican League the next spring.

He dominated in Mexico in 2019, then continued that success in the winter with Licey. Between, he posted a 2.01 ERA and went 19-3, generating interest from what he called “very few teams,” the Orioles among them.

In more than 900 career innings in foreign leagues, Valdez has a 3.61 ERA, including sub-2.00 marks in the Dominican the past two winters.

“This guy, he knows what he’s doing,” Brocail said. "He’s been in baseball a long time, and even when he’s not in the big leagues in the United States, he’s down dominating in the winter leagues.

“This is a guy that’s a king at home.”

‘It finally paid off’

Valdez occasionally joined the Orioles in spring training as an extra from minor league camp, but when the sport returned from the coronavirus shutdown, he was included in the Orioles' initial player pool.

“When we had our summer camp roster meetings, his name kept coming up as somebody we possibly needed to take a look at,” Hyde said.

Elias said then that those were the players the club was considering for its Opening Day roster. A nonroster invitee, Valdez didn’t make it, instead beginning the year at the Orioles' alternate training site in Bowie.

He joined the active roster Aug. 27, and two days later, he made his first major league appearance in three years, striking out five in three scoreless innings of one-hit ball against the Blue Jays.

Brocail said the outing reminded him of his own long-awaited return to the mound, when Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery cost him three seasons in the early 2000s.

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“To make it back, it’s the one time that I shook on the mound,” Brocail said. “My back leg was twitching like crazy. I never saw that out of him, but I got to see the emotion afterward, and it was awesome.”

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Alex Cobb, that night’s starting pitcher, said Valdez’s outing wasn’t a surprise only in that he had seen him have the same effectiveness against the Orioles' batters in intrasquads during the summer training camp.

“It’s just so cool to see a guy that has had the struggles that he’s had in his career, to go and play where he’s had to play, and then come out here,” Cobb said. “I don’t know what he was before. I hadn’t seen him pitch, but it can’t be that because that stuff is unhittable, and he just does it with such ease.”

In 2017, Valdez still heavily relied on his changeup. He threw it nearly half the time and limited batters to a .175 average on it, though it was 5 mph harder on average and it dropped about 5 inches less. It was his sinker, though, that doomed him, as he allowed a .636 average and 11 extra-base hits in 33 at-bats that end with the pitch.

This year’s changeup-dominant repertoire led to no earned runs over 11 1/3 innings over his first six outings, including a two-inning save against the New York Yankees. It marked his only professional save beyond the five he earned with Pittsburgh’s Triple-A affiliate in 2011.

Sabel admitted he was surprised Valdez struggled so much when he reached the majors. He’s thrilled to know he’s thriving now.

“I’m happy as hell for him,” said Sabel, now the director of addiction services for the Association of Professional Ball Players of America.

The Tampa Bay Rays spoiled Valdez’s 0.00 ERA when they got him for two runs in Thursday’s doubleheader. Afterward, Hyde said he was certain Valdez would bounce back.

He’s spent a whole career doing just that.

“It’s been a long road after so many years of hard work, dedication, a lot of sweat and tears,” Valdez said. “It finally paid off. I never lost faith that I could make it again, and here I am.”

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