September 6, 2010

How good is Danny Valencia?

Two things are undeniably true about Danny Valencia's rookie year. The first is that he's been incredibly good, hitting .343/.382/.454 in 63 games while delivering key hits and playing strong defense. The second is that he's been incredibly lucky, posting a .385 batting average on balls in play that's 30 points higher than the rate sustained by even the best ball-in-play hitters and massively out-performing his minor-league track record.

The second thing doesn't take away from the first thing, but understanding and accepting that both things are true is necessary before rationally and objectively trying to figure out what the future holds for Valencia. In other words, Valencia is not going to hit .340 forever, but that fact doesn't wipe away the last three months of hot hitting or mean he won't still be a good player even after the inevitable trip back down to earth.

The question is how good and the answer involves more than the last 65 games.

When the Twins called up Valencia in early June the expectation was that he'd stick around for just a handful of days while Michael Cuddyer was away from the team on bereavement leave, but when J.J. Hardy injured his wrist and Nick Punto replaced him by moving from third base to shortstop there was suddenly a spot in the lineup for the 25-year-old rookie. Valencia drew 11 starts in 13 games, but that changed when interleague play in NL ballparks began.

Ron Gardenhire moved Cuddyer to third base for the first time since 2005, leaving Valencia to start just four of the next 17 games, and by the time interleague play ended Hardy was off the disabled list and Punto was back at third base. Punto started over Valencia eight times in 12 games, but then injured his hamstring in late July. That cleared the way for Valencia to grab hold of the job and he did just that, hitting .359/.387/.503 while making 38 consecutive starts.

Valencia's performance isn't a fluke in the same sense that, say, the random, completely out of character good stretch from Ramon Ortiz in 2007 was, because he's not a rotten player bound to implode. Instead he's a good player--placing eighth in my ranking of Twins prospects coming into the season--and is simply playing above his head for now. Here's a look at how his hitting with the Twins so far compares to what Valencia did at Double-A and Triple-A:

LEVEL        PA     AVG     OBP     SLG    ISOP    BB%     SO%     BIP
Majors      233    .343    .383    .454    .111    6.4    12.4    .385
AA/AAA     1023    .288    .338    .453    .165    6.5    17.7    .329

Valencia has been a much more productive hitter in the majors than he was in the high minors, but he's also been a much different hitter. Valencia showed merely average power at Double-A and Triple-A, with 13 homers and 37 doubles per 500 at-bats, yet he's lost 33 percent of that pop in the majors. Denard Span, Jason Bartlett, Carlos Gomez, Cristian Guzman, and Adam Everett all have an Isolated Power between .105 and .115 for their career. Valencia is at .111.

Along with a 33 percent drop in power he's also cut his strikeouts by 30 percent, which makes some sense given that decreased power and increased contact typically go hand in hand. He's never walked much and Valencia's walk rate has remained almost exactly the same. And then there's the 56-point jump in batting average on balls in play from .329 to .385, which is nearly identical to his 55-point jump in batting average from .288 to .343.

If you adjust Valencia's batting average on balls in play from .385 to .329 his overall line in the majors drops from .343/.383/.454 to .287/.327/.398, which shows just how much of his great production so far has been driven by unsustainably amazing ball-in-play success. And even the .329 batting average on balls in play he had in the high minors would be in the upper-echelon for the majors, so something in the .300-.320 range is more likely long term.

That's the bad news. The good news is that he can also be counted on for more power long term. His pop in the minors clearly doesn't project to make him a slugger, but should translate to more than a .111 Isolated Power and his size suggests the same. Instead of sitting in the low .100s with Span, Bartlett, Gomez, Guzman, and Everett, rising to the .140-.160 range with Joe Mauer, Orlando Hudson, A.J. Pierzynski, and Delmon Young seems doable.

Add it all up and Valencia seems to be something like a .280/.325/.430 hitter, which while quite a letdown from his current production would make him almost exactly average at third base, where the position as a whole has hit .267/.334/.428 over the past three years. Average may not be exciting, especially for a guy hitting .343 at the moment, but from a 25-year-old making the minimum salary and under team control through 2016 average would be plenty valuable.

And that's just his offense. Valencia has looked very strong defensively so far, showing quality range, solid hands, and a great arm. His good glove has come as a pleasant surprise, because both last season and this season the Twins were relatively open about questioning Valencia's defense. For instance, when they declined to call up Valencia for September roster expansion last year, LaVelle E. Neal III of the Minneapolis Star Tribune wrote:

Others with the organization indicate that Valencia, 24, has to tighten up his defense, his positioning in particular.

At the start of spring training five months later Neal quoted a Twins scout who'd also managed Valencia in winter ball as saying he'd been working specifically on his defense and also wrote:

The Twins say they believe he can be a prototypical third baseman, but he needs to smooth out rough spots in his game, especially defensively.

And then in June when the Twins called up Valencia the Star Tribune article by Joe Christensen quoted Gardenhire as saying:

The reports said he's laying back on too many balls right now, so we'll talk about being aggressive and getting the ball. You can't trust your arm all the time because the game's pretty fast up here.

I'm not sure how Valencia used to look, but I've certainly loved his defense so far and Ultimate Zone Rating agrees, pegging him as 5.8 runs above average in less than a half-year of action. Like with his inflated hitting the odds of Valencia being that amazing defensively long term are unlikely, but if he's truly an above-average defender to go with an average bat the Twins will have a very nice all-around player even after he returns from the ball-in-play stratosphere.

34 Comments »

  1. a very solid piece.

    Comment by don — September 5, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

  2. I’ve been asking myself this same question earlier today and was happy to find your thorough answer. I’ve been a big Valencia fan so I want to believe this performance is sustainable. I wonder if there’s any precedence for a player seeing a more than transient performance boost after getting called up? I know I’m just being hopeful but perhaps there are players that “rise to the occasion” and make some change that leads to greater performance in the majors than minors.

    Comment by Ian — September 5, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

  3. @Ian: I think Puckett certainly added a lot of power in the majors that he did not show in the minors. I don’t know about average.

    Comment by Brooklynegg — September 5, 2010 @ 10:54 pm

  4. I said it before, and I’ll say it again. Danny Valencia is going to be a star baseball player. He’s learned a lot since he was called up, and he’s a considerably better player today than he was just a few months ago. He’s going to hit consistently over .325, and he’s going to develop more power than people expect.

    Comment by jimbo92107 — September 6, 2010 @ 1:37 am

  5. “He’s going to hit consistently over .325…”

    say what????

    Comment by Pat — September 6, 2010 @ 1:54 am

  6. my post was in response to Jimbo’s last post of course

    Comment by Pat — September 6, 2010 @ 1:56 am

  7. He’s going to hit consistently over .325

    In your wildest fantasies perhaps.

    Comment by Not David — September 6, 2010 @ 5:10 am

  8. I don’t believe George Brett’s minor league numbers gave any indication for the level of success he attained. In fact, he never hit .300 in the minors.

    Comment by Dose of Thunder — September 6, 2010 @ 7:45 am

  9. Geez I expected mega-frothing over Matt Capps today. I feel a little let down…

    Comment by Neil — September 6, 2010 @ 7:55 am

  10. Valencia has been great to watch this year. Maybe he keeps it up or maybe he reverts to his minor league form. The key, though, is to resist the tempation to give him a long term deal until you are sure. Unless you really think Denard Span will be playing center field for the Twins four years from now.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — September 6, 2010 @ 8:37 am

  11. I’d say his defense is more likely to stay the same or even slightly improve than his offense. I’ve already seen improvement in his jumps and reads. He should learn positioning and opponents tendencies as he gains experience.

    I want to resist drawing too many conclusions from his minor league track record. I think he was trying too hard the last two years as the Twins brass consistently dissed him publicly. When he came up, he was clearly pressing. Just relaxing and letting his natural ability take over has contributed to his playing very well and consistently.

    Also, even though he is not taking a lot of walks, he’s taking a lot of pitches, which bodes well for his future success. Looking at his walk rates, you would think he’s a mild hacker. But he sees five pitches an at bat or so, which means he’s waiting for a pitch he can drive. That’s one area where minor league numbers come up short, especially with so many pitchers struggling with consistent control.

    I’m not saying this is sustainable. But I think he’ll be an above average third baseman, especially since his defense provides a lot of value above replacement.

    I’m left puzzling with the way he was handled. Guys like TK and TR go to the minors and watch a kid play for a weekend and come back with a list of faults. That determines whether the team promotes him or not. TK has a distinct dislike for cocky guys; but sometimes confidence can be misinterpreted as cockiness. I think this more than anything has held Valencia back. In this respect, I much prefer Gardy’s style. He said, “I like confident kids. Confidence breeds success.” Perhaps if they had just called him up and let the major league staff evaluate him last September, he could have broken through much sooner and been helping this team all year.

    Comment by cmathewson — September 6, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  12. I’ve been really excited about Valencia, especially because of his defense. He’s looked really comfortable over at 3B, and his arm is terrific. He’s probably not as elite defensively as the initial numbers suggest, but he’s clearly a plus defender over at 3B and he may actually get a bit better over there for the next few seasons.

    The hitting is way more than can be expected. The BABIP isn’t sustainable and that will pull him back to earth, but it’s awfully fun right now. It will be interesting to see if some of what we’re seeing is a change in approach at the plate (slapping more singles, taking the ball the other way, etc) or just an abberation related to adjusting to MLB pitching. I think Aaron is right that he’s going to show more power, but it’d be great if he could keep a higher BA to go along with it.

    I think one of the real points here is if Valencia can be an average-hitting MLB 3B and a plus defender we’re getting GREAT value and productivity, especially in relation to where we’ve been. We’ve run Nick Punto out at 3B a lot over the past few seasons, making it a hole in the lineup, with Punto getting a lot of his value defensively. Valencia will give us as much value defensively with significantly more hitting.

    If we sign JJ Hardy for a couple of years the left side of the INF will look better than it has in quite some time. Finding a 2B will be a priority if the O-Dog doesn’t come back, but if he does (at a reasonable salary), Punto can go back to where he should be: a super-sub, giving guys a rest at 3 spots, and filling in for injuries…and assuming a return by Morneau, giving the Twins a very, very good infield.

    Comment by Josh — September 6, 2010 @ 11:02 am

  13. Don’t know how he’ll play, but based on his signings of others, Smith is likely to give him a 5 year deal in the offseason……ok, that was snarky.

    I’m with Aaron. About league average for a 3B. There is nothing wrong with a few average players. I’d be thrilled if Valencia is league average for the next 5 years.

    Comment by mike wants wins — September 6, 2010 @ 11:56 am

  14. It was definitely bittersweet watching the Legends celebrations this year. You could see the look on Morneau’s face, especially after being announced with Koskie. The career-ending concussion was the more powerful association than being Canadian. Also when he was glued to the rail, watching formers wondering if that was going to be him. He had to keep his optimism, but he and everybody there knew this might be his final days a Twins uniform.

    Valencia’s BABIP has a lot to do with his mixing up which pitches he swings at in the zone. His lack of pattern makes it hard to pitch to him, and also makes him hit more into holes against the shift. He will settle into patterns, and come back down to earth.

    Comment by brian — September 6, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

  15. Unreal Gardy. How many times does Flores have to fail before you start paying attention to numbers?

    Comment by UGH — September 6, 2010 @ 3:24 pm

  16. I don’t believe George Brett’s minor league numbers gave any indication for the level of success he attained. In fact, he never hit .300 in the minors.

    Brett played a full season in AAA at age 20, after skipping AA entirely.

    Here’s what Valencia and Brett have in common…

    Comment by Not David — September 6, 2010 @ 3:39 pm

  17. I agree with cmathewson’s comment regarding cockiness being misunderstood for confidence. No question this has held him back.

    Comment by mindy — September 6, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  18. There is nothing wrong with a few average players. I’d be thrilled if Valencia is league average for the next 5 years.

    I’d take it.

    Comment by Not David — September 6, 2010 @ 3:42 pm

  19. I am surprised that no one mentions that the level of coaching in the majors is far superior than what is found in the minors. Also, the way that the minor players are treated is far from good. They are not fed well and they are on long bus rides. They play injured and by the end of their long season, they are worn out. They are not given the batting practice that some of them need. In the majors, you get whatever you need so that you can play at your highest level.

    Comment by Jack — September 6, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

  20. There is nothing wrong with a few average players. I’d be thrilled if Valencia is league average for the next 5 years.

    Indeed. The Twins have had real problems filling holes in their infield (in the past) with players that are just average.

    Joe Crede was mostly OK when he could play.

    Punto was fine when he was on one of his “good” season – terrible during the other ones.

    Other than that – lots of subpar players. I won’t go through the 3B role call in the post-Koskie era, it’s too painful.

    Comment by Son of Shane Mack — September 6, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

  21. UGH, I just looked up Flores’s numbers:

    Flores has made six appearances for the Twins this year, and has faced a total of 10 batters. Five have gotten hits, one has walked, and Flores got the other four out. I realize that isn’t much of a sample size, but when you are a specialist brought in to get one batter out and that batter reaches base 6 out of 10 times, I don’t want the sample getting any bigger.

    Comment by Pedro Munoz — September 6, 2010 @ 8:39 pm

  22. Flores not being good shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, he’s always been pretty terrible.

    For a supposed “LOOGY” even his career line against lefties is very poor, a .770 OPS.

    To put that in perspective a bit, Matt Guerrier’s career OPS against lefties is in the .750′s.

    Comment by Not David — September 6, 2010 @ 10:28 pm

  23. if Danny hits .280/.330/.400 with 10 Homers per year, in the next 10 years as a twin and plays tough over average defense on 3b, i will just be confident!!!

    Comment by chris — September 7, 2010 @ 12:44 am

  24. Actually once I thought about this post, Joe Crede seems like a decent baseline for Valencia. Maybe not quite as many homers, but that good D, some pop and hopefully much more durable…

    Comment by Neil — September 7, 2010 @ 5:34 am

  25. Sure, his average will drop to something more realistic, but he has the confidence to go out there and get a clutch hit…those will come even with a diminished average.

    Every successful team needs a happy surprise like Valencia to remain a successful team. With 3B nailed down for a few years, the Twins can now focus on developing the next generation of outfielders.

    Comment by Twins Fan in Milwaukee — September 7, 2010 @ 9:13 am

  26. Infielders needed….they have no SS or 2B that are obvious replacements for the players up in the majors right now. Yes, they ened OFers to be developed, but at least we have Revere, Benson, Hicks and Morales to give us some hope there. Not so much hope at SS or 2B (and maybe 1B?).

    Comment by mike wants wins — September 7, 2010 @ 9:27 am

  27. I really like Valencia’s defense, and I agree that his slugging will improve. Maybe I’m imagining things, but I think he’s been swinging harder the past few weeks. Hey, the Twins finally developed an infielder!

    Comment by Dave T — September 7, 2010 @ 9:29 am

  28. I’ve seen a few balls get through the hole that looked like punto or a better fielder could have had. they seemed like non-starters for him, strangely. otoh he has been a lot more accurate on throws to 1b than, say, matt tolbert. room for improvement in range but all the ingredients seem to be there, for sure.

    Comment by yefrem — September 7, 2010 @ 9:36 am

  29. I realize his numbers bely a bit of luck when it comes to ball in play but he really does seem quite the confident hitter up there. Naturally with such a high BABIP you’d think there are some duck snorts and a lot of balls that find the hole, but from watching him play day in and day out he really does seem to be driving the ball pretty consistently— there doesn’t seem to be a lot of cheap hits in there. That being said I’ll take .280 or .290.

    Comment by Abe — September 7, 2010 @ 10:56 am

  30. What I’ve been impressed with is Valencia’s poise at the plate. He doesn’t look like a rookie when he stands in there, even with two strikes. I can’t predict how the numbers will ultimately turn out, but his confidence gives me confidence — unlike, say, a Delmon Young who brings back memories of Jim Eisenreich.

    Comment by Minfidel — September 7, 2010 @ 4:56 pm

  31. Valencia is turning into a fan favorite. There is already a facebook page to campaign for ROOKIE of the YEAR.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Danny-Valencia-ROY/156515281030737

    Comment by funoka — September 7, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

  32. Why knock this kid from his pedestal suggesting he can’t keep this up? his batting average and all, why not? until he proves other let him stay up there, maybe he his this good,why not?

    Comment by dc — September 8, 2010 @ 11:19 pm

  33. Even if Valencia turns out to be an average 3rd baseman, average would be a lot better than what the Twins have been getting there in a long time.

    Comment by sploorp — September 12, 2010 @ 1:20 pm

  34. Valencia is crushing LHP this year to the tune of .410/.477/.516. Was that his track record in the minors too?

    Comment by Scott — September 16, 2010 @ 2:08 pm

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