The first half of California League play closed Saturday with disappointing results for the San Jose Giants, who failed to win the first-half North Division title for the first time since 2004, finishing three games back of Bakersfield.
The silver lining for the Giants is they have found a new closer option in right-hander Jose Valdez. San Jose has mixed and matched in the bullpen all season, especially in the ninth inning. Eight different pitchers have earned saves, though according to pitching coach Steve Kline, this is as much by design as it is out of necessity.
“Well, I never give these kids roles, because you never know what they’re going to have to do when they get up above,” Kline said. “They all pitch. They’re all able to throw in every situation, and I ask them every time, when I give you the ball, just take it and go out and pitch.”
For the last week at least, Valdez has emerged as San Jose’s closer. The big right-hander has been the most consistent reliever in the Giants’ mix this season, posting a 2.70 ERA while tabbing 43 strikeouts against 10 walks in 33 1/3 innings.
Entering into his June 9 appearance against Stockton, however, he had not recorded a save. Since saving that 4-3 victory, Valdez has notched three saves in fairly dominant fashion, striking out seven over three innings.
At 6-foot-7, Valdez belongs to a trio of San Jose relievers that look more like basketball players than baseball players. At 6-foot-6, Seth Rosin leads the Giants with 10 saves. And 6-foot-8 Mitchell Beacom is the tallest player currently on the San Jose roster.
In fact, Valdez is so tall that he has trouble negotiating the doorway into the dugout, where he has to duck as not to hit his head. His long, athletic frame has served him well on the mound though. He has flashed a low-90s fastball to compliment a circle changeup, and a devastating slider with which he got three swing-through strikes to close out Saturday’s 3-2 win over Modesto.
“My arm feels really good,” Valdez said. “We work hard here, lifting weights a couple times a week, and running a lot. So, I feel good.”
Valdez is grateful for his height, as it got him out of the catching crouch as a kid. When Valdez was a little league player in the Dominican Republic, his coach Jesus Tavarez put him behind the plate because of two very distinct traits – he could really throw, and he was really lazy.
Once he started to pitch at 13, though, Valdez’s career took off. He signed with the Giants as an international free agent when he was 16, and has grown up in the minor leagues before finally coming into his own as a 21-year-old this season.
And, to look at Valdez, it’s obvious he isn’t lazy anymore. Whereas being taller can often be problematic for pitchers, athleticism has been a benefit in avoiding many of the pitfalls that can arise with so many moving parts.
“Usually, the taller you are, the more klutzy you can be,” Kline said. “But, these guys all seem like good little athletes.”
Valdez’s command has caused him to make great strides this season, after being overwrought with wildness in previous years. In this his sixth pro season, Valdez owns an inflated career average of 5.7 walks per nine innings. He has always seen relatively successful results, though. That is, until a midseason promotion last year to San Jose.
Not only did he walk 34 in 38 2/3 innings at San Jose in 2011, he surrendered four home runs. This season, though, in refining his location, he has kept the walk average at 2.8 per nine innings. He is also keeping the ball in the yard, having yielded just one homer in 28 appearances.
“Last year I was walking too many guys and didn’t have any control,” Valdez said. “I went home and I started working on trying to do my job, and this year I’ve been doing really good.”
In support of Valdez’s save on Saturday, left-hander Dan Runzler worked a scoreless eighth inning, retiring the side in order on 11 pitches. The appearance is Runzler’s third of the year, since beginning a rehab assignment at San Jose on June 8.