Entering the 2016 season, the biggest question for the Oakland A's involved their rotation. It could boom or it could bust, and there was a good chance that, whichever direction it headed, it was going to take the rest of the team with it. So far, that direction has been straight down the toilet, which is a bummer. Hopefully they'll turn those fortunes around.
After the rotation, the next biggest question on the team might have involved Danny Valencia. He was an absolute beast in 2015, with a 134 OPS+ and 18 homers in 105 games, and the question was if he could he could repeat that unexpected success at the age of 31. Was last year his breakout campaign, or a pleasant fluke? Like with the rotation, there was a wide range of possibilities -- he could anchor the lineup, hitting like an All-Star and challenging for the team lead in homers, or he could fall flat and be released midseason, or anything in between.
On Friday, Valencia took his first step toward that best-case scenario. In the series opener in Tampa Bay he launched two home runs, one a towering drive off the catwalk in left and the other an opposite-field blast to right, and he also made the biggest defensive play of the night when he speared a potential game-tying liner with the bases loaded in the 9th. He wasn't the only A's player who had a good night, between Rich Hill's gutsy outing and two more dingers from Khris Davis and Marcus Semien, but if you're going to give one guy the proverbial game ball then it would be him.
Before Friday, Valencia had been more or less invisible this season. That doesn't mean he was bad, mind you, just nondescript. Through his first 14 games he had only three 0-fers and was hitting .294, so a glance at his numbers wouldn't immediately worry you. But most of hits were singles, and despite batting in the cleanup spot he'd only managed to drive in two total runs. Then he pulled a hammy on April 20 and missed a couple weeks on the DL, meaning that when May began the A's still had zero homers out of the guy they expected to hit in the heart of their order.
Since returning on May 7, though, Valencia has started to settle into a groove. He's 6-for-14 in his four games back in the lineup, and now he has his first two long balls as well. His slugging percentage entering Friday was .361, but after one big day it has shot up 101 points to .462. A player's OPS+ doesn't mean much after 69 plate appearances, but on a symbolic level it's nice to see a mark of 130 next to his name, nearly identical to his number from last year that we hoped he'd repeat. His homer to right gave me flashbacks of the slugger I saw this spring in the Cactus League.
As a reminder, here are Valencia's numbers since 2013, in 261 games:
Valencia, 2013-16: 901 PAs, .285/.329/.474, 120 OPS+, 32 HR, 55 BB, 187 Ks
Valencia's return to form, at least for one day, came at the perfect time for the A's. The club needed a shot in the arm after a nightmarish week, and he helped give it to them. Granted, the first step was getting a quality start from Hill to break the cycle of rotational gascandom, but the lineup needed to chip in too. What better way than to get some production from one of the guys who was supposed to be a big producer? It felt kind of like this, with the once-fallen hero charging to the rescue:
What does getting Good Valencia back in the order mean for the A's? On offense, it means having an actual intimidating presence in the lineup. Reddick and Vogt are good all-around hitters, but they're more likely to slash you for a key hit than blast you into submission. Davis can mash, but right now he's whiffing too much to be truly scary. Semien might get you, but he usually bats ninth for some reason so it'll probably just be a solo shot; his nine homers have scored 11 total runs. But when Valencia is on his best game, hitting righties and lefties alike and driving the ball with authority, he becomes a tough out who can hit for both average and power.
And what about on defense? Granted, he has already committed five errors at the hot corner, ranking him in the top-18 among all players at all positions. But I think that stat undersells his abilities, between his good reflexes and his cannon arm and his great hustle. We talk a lot of stats here, but let's not overlook how dang hard this guy works on the field, not to mention off of it:
Everyone knows how Marcus Semien works w/ Ron Washington early every day. The other #Athletics player who does so regularly: Danny Valencia.— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) May 13, 2016
Even though he's flubbed a few plays, Valencia is still a dependable hand at third base. He generally converts the routine stuff, and even when he has messed up it hasn't cost the A's. Of his five errors, four came with no men on base and none led to any runs; that's as opposed to, say, choking in a big spot to let the opponent tie the game with an unearned run. Instead, he has repeatedly responded to the biggest moments by making his biggest plays:
Now that he's back, the A's don't have to patch together a plan at the hot corner with alternatives like Chris Coghlan, Yonder Alonso, and Mark Canha (whose season might be done anyway). We spent all winter worried about the team's outfield depth, but it's the infield that has sprung the most leaks so far. Reinserting Valencia, especially the good version of him, would be a huge boost to both the offense and the defense.
And now, we wait. Just as we waited all offseason to see if 2015 was a fluke, we'll wait for the next few games to see if Friday's performance was a one-time thing or the beginning of another big year. Valencia is back in the cleanup spot on Saturday, and here's hoping he stays there this time. The A's sure did miss him.