Let's play everyone's favorite baseball analysis game: Name The Mystery Players Based On Their Respective Statlines Which Are Not Labeled So As To Confuse You! Dang, we really need a better name for this. Here are their 2016 numbers:
Those are two excellent hitters. Both hit for a ton of power. One has better plate discipline, while the other is hitting for a much higher average. Player B is probably the better bet for long-term success, since batting averages fluctuate more than the other stats listed there, but Player A is producing more in this current season.
Player A is Danny Valencia. If you guessed that, then congratulations on reading the headline to this post. Player B is Josh Donaldson, the reigning MVP. He's having another wonderful campaign so far, really backing up his superstar status. But Valencia has been better, at the plate at least, and he's done so even though he plays in one of the worst hitter's parks while Donaldson plays in one of the best.
Now, none of this is to say that Valencia is a better player than Donaldson. There is still defense to consider, and Donaldson's glovework rates positively like it has for years. Meanwhile Valencia is among the league leaders in errors, he's tied for the worst DRS by a third baseman, and he's second-worst in UZR. My eyeball test loves his hustle and his strong arm and the way he anecdotally seems to bear down in the biggest moments, and I have confidence in his defense, but the reality is that he's been a butcher at the hot corner. That helps explain why both WAR scales clearly prefer Donaldson, putting him in excess of 2 WAR already while Valencia hasn't even reached 1. (There is also the matter of playing time, as Valencia already went through a brief DL stint and has missed 18 games.)
But forget about that, and focus on the bat. The A's traded away the eventual MVP, who is a legit two-way superstar, and a year later they have already replaced his production on one side of the ball. With a guy they got on a waiver claim. Who was on waivers after being forced out of his old team specifically because they now had Josh Donaldson at his position. That sound you hear is baseball giggling in a corner with an open bottle of rubber cement clutched in its hands.
Valencia is pounding the ball this year, and that's great news for Oakland A's fans. But that leads us to the dark question that we often must ask ourselves about Oakland's conveyor belt of surprise breakout performers: Is it for real? Has this guy actually turned a corner, or is he just on a hot streak that will eventually end and remind us that we aren't allowed to have nice things? This has been the question ever since the A's first acquired Valencia last August, and it may be one we continue asking until the day he is traded to the Mets for our next ace pitcher.
Let's modify the question a bit, though, to make it forward-thinking instead of retrospective: What will it take for us to officially declare Valencia as a real thing? What would he need to do to shed the "potential fluke" label? One good season clearly isn't enough, as it shouldn't be. Lots of players have one career year that stands apart from their true talent level. How about three straight years of consistent production? Let's give the benefit of the doubt and say that you need at least three good seasons in a four-year span for us to take you for granted as a reliable producer.
Valencia has always carried a reputation of being an inconsistent hitter, and for good reason. But if you step back and look at the bigger trends, it's starting to look like he figured something out in 2013. And now, at age 31 and coming off the best season of his career in 2015, he's actually gotten better. I would have been happy with 80% of his production from last year, and I had daydreams about him matching that performance. Never did I even consider that he might build on it even further.
So is it real now? He was good in 2013, '15, and now '16, so that's three outta four years, right? Not so fast. He only played 52 games in '13, he was below-average in '14, he didn't even make 400 plate appearances last year, and he's only played 35 games so far in 2016. There have been platoon situations, injuries, and times when he simply wasn't in the everyday plans, so the sample isn't as large as it initially appears. But he is approaching 1,000 plate appearances in that four-year split from 2013-16, the one that includes a 124 OPS+, and in the world of "what have you done for me lately" he's continually improved the last couple seasons and his best work is also his most recent.
One red flag from last year was that Valencia suddenly started hitting well against right-handed pitchers, but so far he's carried that over to this year. He still prefers lefties, but his .319/.350/.457 line against RHPs is nothing to complain about. We're still talking about a tiny overall sample (100 PAs, or 329 dating back through 2015), but the point is that we've moved closer to this potential mirage is it's still clearly visible.
You might be skeptical of his high BABIP as well (.354), since his strong batting line is aided greatly by a particularly high batting average. However, note that he's maintained a .331 BABIP over those last 1,000 PAs dating back to 2013, so even this usual suspect can't be written off as a complete fluke. He's just about at the stabilizing point of 800 balls in play over that span, so this might actually be a sustainable skill. And aside from his BABIP, another thing helping his overall average is the fact that his strikeout rate is the lowest it's been since his rookie year in 2010.
Valencia showed up last August and immediately started raking. He broke up Colby Lewis' perfect game bid in the 8th inning when nobody else could figure him out, and he was the best hitter on the 2015 team after his arrival. He had a huge spring. It took a month for his power to get going this season, but on May 13 he hit his first two homers and jump-started the A's offense; since then he's been on fire, and the A's are 10-8.
He's making hard contact and putting the ball in play, he's racking up hits and piling up homers, he's still destroying fastballs, and he's continuing to hit against right-handers after last year's renaissance. I'm running out of reasons to doubt this guy, and while it still might be slightly premature to call this one, it's starting to look more like a matter of time than anything else. Mark it down, folks. Against all odds, Danny Valencia is probably for real.