Danny Valencia is the Oakland A's newest scrapheap superhero. The 30-year-old was available on waivers last week, not because he was having a bad year but because the Blue Jays already had Josh Donaldson, Chris Colabello and the newly acquired Ben Revere playing his positions of third base and left field. In four games since washing up on Oakland's shore, he's 7-for-16 with two homers, two doubles, two walks, five RBI, and a 1.438 OPS, and he was the driving force in a series win against the first-place Astros. Viva Valencia!
The big debut was fun to watch this weekend, but what does Valencia realistically have to offer moving forward? To be honest, he's a difficult guy to figure out. His career can be summed up as follows:
2010: 119 OPS+ in 332 PAs (Good!)
2011: 86 OPS+ in 608 PAs (Bad!)
2012: 35 OPS+ in 161 PAs (Bad!)
2013: 138 OPS+ in 170 PAs (Good!)
2014: 87 OPS+ in 284 PAs (Bad!)
2015: 137 OPS+ in 186 PAs (Good!)
There's not much of a pattern there. He burst onto the scene as a 25-year-old rookie and earned himself an everyday job, but he failed to recreate the magic either of the next two years. Two teams later, he found success in a platoon role in 2013, but he cooled off once again in the first half of 2014. That was when the Blue Jays acquired him, and Toronto decided not to hide him against right-handed pitching. That was a poor decision in 2014 when his number plummeted, but this year he is hitting righties for the first time in his career.
This isn't the first time Valencia has been good, so it doesn't have to be a complete fluke. However, at age 30 it's also unlikely (though never impossible) that he's suddenly turned a corner and become something more than a maddeningly inconsistent hitter. Even if he stays hot for the rest of this year, his career history suggests that the good times won't last, but let's take a deeper look at him anyway. It's either that or complain about Edward Mujica, and none of us need another reminder that the bullpen is bad.
I took a look through some of Valencia's numbers to try to figure out what his good years had in common and how they differed from his bad years. It didn't seem to matter whether he walked a lot, struck out a lot, hit a lot of grounders or liners, swung a lot, took a lot of pitches, pulled it a lot or aimed the other way -- sometimes he was just good, and sometimes he was bad.
The most consistent trend that immediately presented itself was that Valencia is at his best against fastballs and can also handle changeups, but he's vulnerable against breaking balls like sliders and curves. Not surprisingly, his previous two good years ('10, '13) came when he did his best jobs of laying off breaking pitches. as well as making contact when he did offer. This year, though, he's swinging (and missing) at those pitches like you'd expect in a bad year, and indeed he is still not doing any damage on them, but for some reason it's all working out.
There are two more big trends in Valencia's career that have flipped around this year. First, his lifetime platoon splits include a 240-point OPS gap in favor of LHP and a similarly pronounced difference in his BB:K rate against each hand, but he's feasting on RHP this year. I think that is most likely a fluke. The second trend is that he's always done his best work to the pull side and been next to useless to the opposite field. This year that has changed, though; his pull-side numbers are the same as always, but he's hitting even better up the middle and even better than that to right field. That's a complete reversal of his normal profile, and even if you look in terms of raw numbers he has already set a career-high for extra-base hits to the opposite field (in faaar from a career-high in plate appearances). I don't quite know what to make of that new development.
All told, I think it's safe to say Valencia is a fastball hitter who likes the ball inside and prefers facing lefties. This is basically his best-case scenario -- a lefty leaving a fastball on the inside of the plate where he can pull the absolute hell out of it:
Here's my walkoff-pie-in-the-sky theory for Valencia's career. He came up trying to be a complete hitter, and some immediate short-season success as a rookie made that look like the right path for him. It turned out it wasn't, because he's got too many holes in his game. Then in 2013, the Orioles restricted him to mostly facing lefties and that hid the problem for a year, because he was mostly in favorable matchups, but the platoon boost was short-lived and his flaws eventually came out. So, similar to Brandon Moss but to a far lesser extent, he decided to play to his strength -- power, rather than discipline or making lots of contact -- by cutting loose a bit and accepting more swings and misses in exchange for more power on the contact he did make. He might get fooled on a few extra breaking balls that tumble harmlessly out of the zone, but he'll punish more of the fastballs that do come -- more strikeouts, but more homers. He spent the end of 2014 adjusting to the new approach, and this year it finally paid dividends in the form of harder contact, longer flies, and more power. He'll still come back to Earth a bit as he stops blasting righties so uncharacteristically hard, and as his .365 BABIP creeps back toward .300, but he can settle in as an above-average hitter with respectable power.
Or, alternatively, I could be way off. The Astros may have just made a few too many mistakes inside last weekend and got caught in his wheelhouse, with other teams sure to adjust in the future and avoid a repeat. He might just be a hitter with a bunch of weaknesses (including breaking balls, right-handers, and making consistent contact) who can put it together for a couple hundred at-bats at a time, and we're seeing one of those golden moments right now. It probably isn't a complete coincidence that his two biggest years came with standout performances at his hitter-friendly home parks of Camden Yards (2013) and Rogers Centre (2015). If you're curious for an explanation behind Valencia's odd career, then perhaps my initial attempt up there can serve as a starting point, but it's good to keep this pessimistic paragraph in mind as a distinct, nay, likely possibility.
But after watching Josh Donaldson figure out how to hit overnight at age 26, and Brandon Moss go from Quad-A scrub to dinger artiste at 28, and Stephen Vogt collect his first MLB hit at 28 and then his first All-Star bid at 30, I'm wary of writing off a player just because he's never been there before. It seems like stars come out of the woodwork more and more every year, not just for the A's but for all teams, so why not this guy? He's probably not the next Moss or Vogt, but he's shown just enough flashes in his career to make me pay attention when the next one comes, just in case it finally turns on the light bulb permanently this time.
When you add a 30-year-old journeyman off of waivers, one with a spotty history of success littered throughout a mediocre career, it's always unlikely that he is suddenly going to turn a corner and become a star. The A's have 49 more games to figure out who can help them in 2016, and the smart money is that Valencia hasn't morphed into a keeper. But there are straws to be grasped if you'll have them, and I believe they make him worth a look for the rest of this year. If he works out, then he's another option at third base who can back up Brett Lawrie, or even shift Lawrie to second base so that the A's can field an offensive-minded lineup. Or Valencia can cover left field in a thin outfield that features too much Fuld in the starting lineup. He's a guy who doesn't need to play every day but can handle it for stretches when needed. If even 80% of his current success is sustainable, then he's a great fit for this A's roster. And if he turns back into a pumpkin, well, last weekend was a lot of fun.
Thanks to Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Brooks Baseball for all their great info.