I have mostly resigned myself to the notion that Oakland Athletics third baseman Danny Valencia cannot and will not maintain the pace he set in the second half of 2015. I think many of you would agree with me, too.
What if we're wrong?
In just in 54 second-half games Valencia clobbered 12 home runs, drove in 39 runs batted in, scored 37 times, and posted an .868 OPS. Those numbers rank 9th, 10th, 11th, and 4th among MLB third baseman, respectively. Keep in mind Valencia came to the A's for free, basically. Those numbers are absurd.
The vast majority of his torrid summer came with the A's, leaving many to wonder who will Danny Valencia be in 2016?
Will he be the guy who has spent time with six different teams in six seasons? Will he be the guy who has been exactly league average to this point in his career? Has the 31-year old finally broken out of a career-long slump versus right-handed pitchers?
It would be very acceptable to look at the back of his baseball card and write-off 2015 as a fluke. However, I'm becoming more and more optimistic something is different with Valencia and that maybe he's closer to the hitter we saw last year than most think.
A thorough examination of Valencia's power breakout from Beyond the Box Score last September offers a potential explanation:
"Some of this rediscovered power may come from a mechanical adjustment, as he appears to be employing a more pronounced leg kick in many appearances this season." — Spencer Bingol
The article notes that in years past Valencia used a double toe-tap as he geared up for a pitch, a change two prominent power hitters have made in recent years leading to great success.
A name we are well familiar with, Josh Donaldson, began going with a high leg kick as opposed to a toe-tap prior to his breakout. As did Jose Bautista. Several other premium power hitters have pronounced leg kicks that set themselves up for a big swing, including David Ortiz and Hanley Ramirez. Valencia is just a little late to the party.
Is it a coincidence that Valencia has played on teams with three of the four players I just mentioned?
He showed improvement in three key areas with the A's: Batting average on balls in play, strikeouts, and walks.
Valencia's 205 plate appearances with the A's in 2015 were the most he has had with any single team since 2011, his second year in the league and only season with a full-time role.
In those 205 plate appearances he turned fly balls into home runs more often, hit infield pop-ups less often, and showed improvement in line-drive percentage and hard-hit percentage. He also pulled the ball less often than in recent years and went to the opposite field more.
I also believe It would be incorrect to assume that his improvement was driven by luck. His .308 batting average on balls in play, down from .353 with the Blue Jays, is a very sustainable mark. Additionally his 19.5 strikeout percentage was the lowest since 2011 and his 9.8 walk percentage was the highest of his career. Both were above league-average in 2015.
Can He Now Hit Righties?
The biggest question surrounding Valencia is what will he do against right-handed pitching in 2016? Part of the reason he has bounced around so many times in his career is that his value comes from his ability to hit southpaws. His career triple-slash vs. LHP is .321/.369/.493. Against righties it is just .237/.275/.389.
To succeed on a daily basis in the bigs you must be able to at least be passable against righties. He was more than that in 2015. His slash line vs. righties in 2015 was .285/.325/.556 and against lefties it was .298/.376/.458.
His ridiculous 27.1 HR/FB% against righties should come down about 15 points, which would make a huge difference.
Overall he made less weak contact in 2015 than is normal for him while his medium contact percentage was in line with his career. What I find most encouraging about Valencia's 2015 season is that his hard-hit rate was among his career highs. Additionally he was among the top-40 hitters in baseball in average exit velocity, ahead of studs such as Alex Rodriguez, Jose Abreu, and Bryce Harper. It is safe to say when he made contact he hit the ball very hard.
I'm willing to buy his 2015 success vs. righties, to a degree. He made improvements in key areas that appear legitimate, such as plate discipline. He did things well that other great hitters do, such as make hard contact. Next season he won't hit a home run as frequently as he did in 2015, but to be successful he doesn't have to.
There a few reasons I'm very optimistic about the Athletics going into the 2016 season. Count Danny Valencia as one of them.