An Apology to Luis Valbuena and Dioner Navarro

Luis Valbuena struggles against fastballs, and is Michael-Jackson-bad against all other pitches. In an alternate world in which the Cubs actually cared about the difference between 61 and 65 wins, Luis Valbuena does not get 303 plate appearances last season. But in this world, where the Cubs are suppressing arbitration clocks and dropping bench players into starting roles, Luis Valbuena gets 303 PA. Barring something magical, do not put Luis Valbuena on your fantasy team in 2013.

That was me. I wrote that very review of Cubs third baseman Luis Valbuena for his 2013 FanGraphs+ fantasy profile. At the time, Luis Valbuena had a career .224/.292/.343 slash and a 73 wRC+. On the merit of some impressive defensive output in 2012, he had managed to increase his career WAR to a sterling -0.3 wins through 1109 PA.

Nothing outside of some solid PCL numbers suggested Valbuena could be a solid third baseman in 2013. So far, I’ve been quite wrong.

Later that winter, I also said this:

Not a great signing, if the $1.75 million I’m hearing is accurate. Navarro is decidedly not a good defensive catcher — unless he radically overhauled his abilities in 2012…

Navarro was ranked highly as a prospect and indeed hit well in the minors not because he was a solid hitter, but because he was patient to a fault. That problem, coupled with his defensive miscues, became abundantly clear during his tenure with the Rays. Hopefully he sorted his problems out, but otherwise this is an overpay for a guy who in all likelihood could have been acquired for an MiLB deal in a month or two.

This was my comment on the Cubs Den article concerning the Chicago Cubs’ acquisition of Dioner Navarro. I had watched Navarro closely during his years with the Tampa Bay Rays, and he did not impress.

But today, allow me to extend an open apology to these two northsiders. Not only have they confounded my predictions about their inevitable uselessness, they may even be able to sustain respectable levels of production in the future.

From 2008 through 2012, Luis Valbuena served as a utility infielder first for the Seattle Mariners, then the Cleveland Indians. In that stretch, he mustered some iffy defensive numbers at second base, some ugly UZR numbers at short, and some unflattering offensive numbers. Credit the Cubs scouts, however, who saw Valbuena as a potentially strong defender at third base. In his 1032.1 innings at third, he has a .957 fielding percentage (around league average), a 2.53 range factor per 9 innings (again, just a tick above league average), and a sterling report from Ultimate Zone Rating (an absurd 21.8 UZR/150). Only the Fan Scouting Report (-3 runs entering the 2013 season) suggests Valbuena is anything less than just a bit above average at third.

But his glove was not really what made me consider him unworthy of fantasy baseball. It was his bat. And his bat is what has been most surprising in 2013. Luis Valbuena is not just riding a wave uncommonly high BABIP (in fact, he’s only 4 points off his career mark). Instead, Valbuena has a career-high walk rate and a career-high ISO. It has led to an impressive .243/.363/.429 slash with 6 homers — a 116 wRC+.

So if BABIP is not doing the heavy lifting, what has changed? For one: He has hit fastballs and changeups well. BIS numbers suggest that for the first time in almost ever, Valbuena has a positive run value against fastballs. And more than that, he has slaughtered changeups against him so far. I doubt that continues — because a lefty who crushes right-handed changeups does not remain a platoon player for much longer.

SIDE NOTE: Though Valbuena has a reverse split on his career (91 wRC+ as L vs. L, 74 wRC+ as L vs. R), the fact that he has less than 200 PA against LHP and managers have aligned 85% of his PA against RHP suggests there are distinct scouting-based reasons for his platooning. His MiLB numbers since 2011 suggest a distinct platoon necessity.

What appears to have changed most is Valbuena’s selectively. Here is a look at his BIS plate discipline numbers:

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2013 25.4 % 63.6 % 41.0 % 63.8 % 90.7 % 80.8 % 40.9 % 53.3 % 7.5 %
2008-12 27.3 % 64.2 % 44.4 % 67.4 % 88.6 % 81.6 % 46.4 % 57.5 % 7.9 %

Number accurate through Sunday’s games.

The first item I noticed: His swing rate — already low compared to the league average of 46% — decreased a further 3 points. But the decrease in swings appears to have come in out-of-zone pitches (O-Swing% down from 27% to 25%). His in-zone aggressiveness appears to match the league average still, around 65% Z-Swing%, but he has put fewer swings on bad pitches.

That is a pretty direct way to improve plate discipline — swing at fewer balls. But one has to wonder if the massive decrease in Zone% (which now stands a 5 points below league average and 6 points below Valbuena’s pre-2013 average) will eventually increase. And if pitchers pound the zone more, will Valbuena walk less? He does have a low swinging-strike rate, but only an average contact rate.

In general though, it appears Valbuena has narrowed down his swing zone. He has received fewer strikes and spit on the bad pitches. When the mistake pitches come, he has blapped them for homers at a higher rate than any time in his career:

Valbuena hit types

This could be a matter of home run clustering — he got more of “his pitches” early in the year; later in the year, he may get fewer (though assuming that would happen would incur the wrath of the Gambler’s Fallacy).

Speaking of home run clustering: Dioner Navarro. He went crazy town banana pants during Chicago’s Crosstown Cup, gaining no shortage of publicity after he cranked three homers against White Sox pitchers:

That’s a backup catcher, a guy who never had a multi-home-run in his career, placing a three-donger deposit into the Outfield Bleachers Credit Union.

Anything can happen in 81 PA. For Dioner Navarro, anything is exactly what happened. But can this early, odd success continue? A look at his plate discipline numbers says no. It says, “Everything’s going the wrong way.”

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
2013 34.5 % 63.6 % 46.7 % 54.9 % 89.7 % 74.8 % 42.0 % 64.9 % 10.6 %
2004-2012 25.8 % 67.1 % 46.4 % 67.1 % 92.9 % 85.7 % 49.9 % 56.6 % 6.4 %

His contact rate is lower, his swinging strike rate is higher — but he’s hitting .268/.358/.535 with 6 homers. He is three homers away from his career high — which came via an extra 353 PA.

But here’s the twist: In the previous offseason, Navarro spent a month with perhaps the greatest mind to grace a batter’s box this decade:

“I had a great off-season program, I worked out with Joey Votto for four weeks, kind of picked his brain a little bit, the way he goes at it,” Navarro said. “It’s nice that I’ve had a good spring like this, and hopefully it carries over during the season.”

In his 60 Spring Training plate appearances, Dioner Navarro hit .286/.333/.571 and led the team with 5 home runs.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: Passive catcher hits well-ish in minors
  --> flounders at MLB level
  --> trains with Joey Votto
  --> hits like Joey Votto.

Can a few weeks with Votto help Navarro — who had a walk-heavy .276/.359/.392 slash at the Triple-A level — shake his case of the Passives? I cannot put anything past the Power of Votto. Neither can pitchers. But that may be a miracle even too large for Joey.

Nonetheless, Dioner is hitting like mad. His defense is still somewhere between feh and ugh, but if he can continue to muster solid offensive numbers, Welington Castillo may under-perform his way into ceding Navarro more than just platoon PA. That’s something I clearly did not anticipate last December when I was complaining about his salary.

What I’m saying is: Sorry, guys, for writing you off. It’s baseball; it’s randomness with replacement. I am in a world of predicting performances; you’re in a world of performing. And you won this round. And though there are a number of unhappy pitchers, I can say that I’m happy for you.

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9 years ago

Hopefully Navarro doesn’t turn out like Soto. And such.