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Danny Valencia's success against fastballs

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Much has been written about Danny Valencia this offseason, and for good reason. Valencia ranked 30th in wRC+ last year but was still DFA'd midseason. What gives? Our very own JosephTDeclercq took an in depth look at Valencia and explained why he's optimistic for 2016 while FanGraph's Jeff Sullivan took a deeper dive into Valencia's splits.

You thought you'd read it all. You thought it was time to see what Valencia can do in 2016, what he can do with a full time gig from the start. Just one more article!

Danny Valencia has a newfound love for fastballs

FanGraphs is an awesome site and one of my favorite features is the ability track pitch values. We can see what pitches hitters hit best and for the sake of this article, we can compare how valuable Danny Valencia's production was against certain pitches compared to other hitters.

So how did Valencia fare against fastballs in 2015? He dominated. His 16.9 runs above average against fastballs ranked 39th in baseball, a number which might not sound impressive until you consider Valencia only had 345 at bats last year. When you compare by pitch value per 100 pitches, Valencia ranked 6th in baseball at 2.36 runs above average, ahead of hitters like Joey Votto and Giancarlo Stanton. That's awesome and should Valencia hold that pace over a full season, he'd be among the elite players in the game. Valencia was good against fastballs before, but never to the level he was in 2015 and if I were a betting man, I'd guess that new-found success has something to do with the new leg lift.

As Valencia's fastball mashing ways emerged, the league noticed and adjusted.

The black line represents hard pitches (a group that includes different pitches like sinkers, cutters, etc.) and as the season wore on, pitchers chose to feed Valencia fewer fastballs in favor of more breaking balls. In the final month of the season, Valencia saw hard pitches a mere 51% of the time.

He's crushing first pitches, too

Prior to 2015, Valencia wasn't great against first pitches in a notably tiny sample.

Season Season ABs 1st pitch ABs % of total ABs OPS (1st pitch)
2010 299 30 10% 0.633
2011 564 62 10.90% 0.642
2012 154 19 12.33% 0.368
2013 161 14 8% 1.571
2014 264 32 12% 0.853
2015 345 48 13.90% 1.125

Things were quite different last year as Valencia's OPS skyrocketed compared to his career. When you're dealing with a sample as small as 48 at bats, it's probably not advisable to put too much stock in the numbers. I did find it interesting, however, that Valencia hit four first pitch homeruns and three of them were off fastballs from righties. It's certainly something to watch for in 2016.

You probably know by now that prior to last season, Valencia was seen as a platoon player, either struggling against right handed pitchers or not having the chance to face them at all. There are a variety of reasons hitting against same handed pitchers is more difficult than the opposite and one of them is pitch recognition. It's just harder for a right handed hitter to pick up a pitch from a right handed pitcher.

Swinging first pitch fastball is a way to mitigate that issue while jumping on a potentially easier to hit pitch. Hitters are more likely to see a fastball and odds are higher that it will be a strike. In 2015, Valencia's first pitch swing percentage jumped from his career mark of 22% all the way to 32%. He's going up there looking for his pitch and he's punishing pitchers that indulge his preferences.

You might be wondering why I included the percentage of at bats that ended on the first pitch. The reason is, I thought it was telling into his approach to start an at bat. While Valencia had a noted uptick in swing frequency he didn't see a commensurate increase in balls in play. My guess is that he's focusing on hitting for power and when he gets the pitch he's looking for, he crushes it. With an approach focused on power, he's not putting the ball in play as frequently. Rather, he's either swinging and missing or fouling the pitch off more frequently. I looked at the numbers and indeed, Valencia swung and missed much more frequently first pitch last season (8.7% in 2015 vs 5.4% 2010-2014) or fouled the ball off ( 10% vs 6.7% ) than he did earlier in his career.

Swings and misses aren't typically a good thing, but I think his first pitch misses are a function of his increased power. It's not like he was randomly guessing either. Against sliders, he only swung 20% of the time, indicating solid pitch recognition. He didn't live and die by first pitches like Billy Burns did, instead he took advantage when the time was right.

What does that mean for 2016?

To use Sullivan's words since they're a touch more cogent than mine:

Adjustments beget adjustments, and as it is with every player, Valencia will have to re-prove his improvement. He's unlikely to hit righties so well again, if only because he set so high a bar.

Valencia made a lot of changes in 2015 with both his approach and his physical swing. We've already seen that the league noticed and adjusted and teams are sure to have new game plans for Valencia in 2016. The way the league and Valencia respond is just another reason 2016 is already must watch baseball. Go A's.