Whenever I talk to players in the Dominican Summer League, I like to get their opinion on certain skills and tools for players we don’t get to see in person for another 1-2 years. It helps give me an idea of which players to get more information on each year. The more opinions I can get the better. I did that again during the 2018 season when the Pittsburgh Pirates had over 70 new players signed during the 2017-18 international signing period.
You usually don’t get a unanimous selection for one category. It happened back in 2014 when I asked about the fastest player and Victor Fernandez got rave reviews from everyone. Then later that fall we saw what everyone was talking about in the Instructional League. Fernandez also served as a cautionary tale because he started to fill out as he got older, had some hamstring injuries and that plus-plus speed wasn’t there by the time he maxed out in 2017.
That brings us to the one question from 2018 that got a unanimous response. I talked to a lot of players this year, mostly because there were two teams. While some players switched teams during the season and saw everyone play, certain players only saw the other group of players during Spring Training. Due to that fact, I didn’t expect any answer to be the same for every player I questioned, but when I asked about the best pitcher, everyone mentioned Jesus Valles.
Valles joined the Pirates in early March of this year. His signing was made official at the same time that the Pirates signed South Korean shortstop Ji-Hwan Bae for $1.2 M, so Valles and six other players who signed at that time got lost in the mix. The group included Yoyner Fajardo, who put up the best offensive numbers for the DSL Pirates in 2018, so those “afterthoughts” turned out to be a pretty good group.
When we rated our top ten prospects from the two DSL teams, Valles was tenth on the list. Without context, that seems very low for someone who everyone I talked to agreed was the best pitcher on both teams. The biggest issue is age and the questions that come along with that, but the Pirates have some recent examples of older signings looking great.
Valles will be 21 years old in two weeks, and he has no experience above the lowest level of the minors. That hurt his rankings, though maybe we should be a little more lenient with the older pitchers.
Edgar Santana signed just before his 22nd birthday and ended up in the majors within three years of his pro debut. Yeudy Garcia signed just before he turned 21 years old, and by age 22 he was in Low-A looking like a legit prospect. He was sidetracked by some injuries, but that doesn’t take away the fact that he was the best pitcher at the time. Osvaldo Bido impressed scouts in the NYPL this year after signing 16 months earlier at age 21. All three of those players impressed in the DSL, even if they didn’t all put up the best stats. So Valles has some recent positive examples for older players signing.
The story on the late signing for Valles has something to do with the turmoil going on in his home country of Venezuela. He left home to go to the Dominican Republic, hoping to give himself a better chance to be signed. Valles said that the adjustment to the new country was a tough one.
“I came from Venezuela to the Dominican Republic around 2016 in search of an opportunity from an MLB team due to the hard situation in my country,” Valles said. “The change was very sudden and a bit rough because I came here by myself.”
Valles was in the Dominican for two years before signing with the Pirates. At the time, he was training with Henderson Martinez at the H3K Academy. He credited Martinez with helping him adjust to the new country and putting him on the right track to sign with the Pirates.
Due to the early March signing date for Valles, he was soon at Spring Training for the 2018 DSL season. Many players make their way to the Dominican academy before signing so the Pirates can get a better look at them, but Valles arrived there just in time to get settled in and sign his contract. He quickly made a strong impression.
With over 30 new pitchers in the system, many of them signing shortly before Spring Training started, the Pirates had to quickly sort them out and figure out roles for the new pitchers. Valles said that he wasn’t there long before the Pirates decided that he would be in the starting rotation. He was already a polished pitcher when he signed, which is rare for international free agents, but part of the reason that everyone else considered him the best pitcher on either team.
Valles said that the Pirates didn’t make any changes with his pitches. He came in throwing a four-seam fastball, a sinker, a changeup and a curve, and he threw all four pitches regularly during the season. We often hear about pitchers working on fastball command first with the Pirates. Valles was already a graduate of the “fastball command academy” before signing. He issued just eight walks in 51.1 innings this year, with four of those coming in his last 4.2 innings, when he admitted that he was tired from the extra workload over previous years.
It wasn’t just the 51.1 innings you see on paper for Valles. He was starting games in Spring Training and was going through workouts and games for scouts back in March (and earlier) before he signed. His final overall stats in the DSL took a hit at the end, as he finished with a 3.86 ERA, with a 1.11 WHIP, 40 strikeouts and a .247 BAA.
According to Valles, his best pitch is the four-seam fastball, which currently sits 90-92 MPH. According to some others, his 80-84 MPH changeup is his best pitch. It shows nice separation from the four-seam fastball, and even works well at the lower velocity with the sinker, which sits 88-89 MPH. His curve sits 76-78 MPH. Having command of all four pitches is what makes them work so well.
Those velocity numbers won’t impress anyone, especially when talking about an older DSL player. The Pirates believe that there is more in there and that’s due to his frame. Valles is 6’3″ and he was 178 pounds when he signed. He’s up to 185 pounds now, but the Pirates set a goal for him this winter to get up to 195 pounds by adding more muscle to his frame. That could help add velocity, while also keeping him strong through the end of the season.
Conditioning has been the focus since the DSL season ended. Valles attended the Fall Instructional League in Bradenton in September. He wasn’t there as part of the games though. Instead, he was there for the rookie camp, which was just training and conditioning related and didn’t involve any baseball activities. Many players who go to instructs in the U.S. are done for the season once that ends, but Valles went to the Dominican Instructional League as well. While many players are there for games, he attended for the conditioning and workouts, which will help him towards that off-season goal. He talked about how his first year of pro ball and his first trip to the U.S. helped him grow as a person.
“In the Dominican I learned how to play like a Pirate,” Valles said. “During the rookie camp they showed me how to act like a Pirate on and off the field.”
Valles will be in the U.S. this spring and he has his own goal for 2019 outside of the conditioning. He wants to end the season with a full-season club. That sounds like a lofty goal, skipping over three levels, but Edgar Santana and Yeudy Garcia both did just that in their first year in the States. Valles already has a few things going for him, besides the polished pitching repertoire.
At the end of rookie camp during instructs, Valles was named as the Community Commitment Program award winner for the DSL Pirates1. The Pirates give to award to one player on each team who does the most for the community during the season. That earned Valles a trip to PNC Park to collect his award and get a sneak peek at his ultimate goal.
“Going to PNC was a beautiful experience and a big motivation for me in my career.” Valles said.
Here’s Valles pictured as the second player from the left:
Before the game we recognized the nine winners of the 11th annual Pirates Community Commitment Program (PCCP) award.
Each year, we acknowledge players from each minor league affiliate as the program encourages players to emulate Roberto Clemente’s legacy of community service. pic.twitter.com/OHj988xORz
— Pirates (@Pirates) September 22, 2018
He’s not only a mature player, but he’s also a quick learner. The Pirates teach English classes to players at the Dominican academy. For many, it’s learning baseball basics and intro classes to the language, but he already has a strong grasp of the language, which will help him adjust to life in a different country. Some players don’t leave Pirate City right away because there is a longer adjustment period, but that won’t be an issue with Valles. He already has the experience on his own of living in a new country and has shown maturity off the field beyond his years.
In summary, you have a right-handed pitcher with a polished pitching repertoire, who is also a polished individual off of the field. He has command over a solid four-pitch mix, with possibly more velocity and stamina on the way as he continues to fill out. He has seen the struggles in his home country and caught a glimpse of his ultimate goal in Pittsburgh. His immediate goal is to just go out and do his best in 2019, with the hope to make it to full-season ball by the time the year is done. It doesn’t happen often, but so far he makes a good case to be the next player to make that jump.