September 6, 2010
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.