Luis Valbuena to Take Flight in LA

The Angels control a beautiful and valuable thing, Mike Trout’s age-25 to -28 seasons, what should mark his prime. The baseball world awaits to see what the club is able to do with this precious asset, and how the Angels will supplement it. If the club holds Trout and struggles to compete in the AL West, it would be akin to purchasing Cezanne’s “The Card Players” and then proceeding to lock the painting in a secure storage facility for few to enjoy.

Baseball, and the Angels, would do well to have Trout involved in postseason games.

Will the Angels help Trout to his first postseason at-bats since 2014 this October? We’ll see. FanGraphs’ projections have the Angels as an 84-win team at the moment, which is tied for the second-best mark in the AL West after the Astros, who are projected to win 90 games.

The projections foresee a logjam after the respective division favorite Red Sox, Indians and Astros. The forecast has the Angels tied with the Mariners and Blue Jays for the fourth-best mark in the AL, the Tigers and Rangers with 83 wins, and the Yankees and Rays with 82.

It’s a January forecast of October. Presumably, much can and will go wrong with it. But perhaps what we can take from it is that there could potentially be a crowded Wild Card field, and the Angels could be in the middle of it. That potential scenario means every transaction, every decision, could carry significance for a team like the Angels. Not only are the Angels in a position where each additional win could be immensely valuable, but we also know that they can’t expect much help from a thin farm system to provide depth.

That brings us to Luis Valbuena, who officially signed a two-year, $15 million deal with the Angels on Tuesday. For a player who has averaged 2.1 WAR during the last four seasons, it seems like a solid investment for the club. Dave Cameron wrote that Valbuena is similar in value to Mark Trumbo, who earned more than twice the guaranteed dollars of Valbuena’s agreement in his new deal.

Earlier this month, Cameron wrote about the depressed demand for sluggers. Eno Sarris wondered if there was enough landing spots for the available bats, which included Valbuena.

Valbunea was one of the better bets to find work in the group, in part because he’s left-handed and in part because of his positional versatility. But he does a couple other things well that could provide some sneaky value and make him one of the better late offseason pickups.

There are reasons to like Valbuena beyond the walk rate, the ability to play third base, the isolated-power of .200 since 2014, and the left-handedness. The Angels’ infield is right-handed heavy with Andrelton Simmons, Yunel Escobar, Albert Pujols and C.J. Cron.

There’s another significant factor to like about Valbuena: he hits a lot of fly balls.

Since 2014, Valbuena has the 10th-highest GB/FB ratio in the sport among hitters with at least 600 plate appearances.

Top GB/FB ratios since 2014
1 Chris Carter 0.218 0.313 0.477 114 0.59
2 Brandon Moss 0.229 0.314 0.441 107 0.61
3 Chris Young 0.246 0.320 0.437 108 0.62
4 Lucas Duda 0.246 0.344 0.474 128 0.63
5 Mike Zunino 0.191 0.257 0.377 78 0.65
6 Colby Rasmus 0.224 0.297 0.428 100 0.71
7 Kris Bryant 0.284 0.377 0.522 143 0.71
8 Stephen Drew 0.199 0.272 0.379 75 0.72
9 Brandon Belt 0.272 0.365 0.471 132 0.73
10 Luis Valbuena 0.243 0.334 0.442 115 0.73
Min. 600 PA

The fly balls explain, in part, how he’s posted a .200 isolated-slugging mark since 2014. They explain his 123 wRC+ last season, despite middle-of-the-pack exit velocity last season.

Hitting fly balls is generally a good thing, since they produce more extra-base hits, and because a lot more fly balls have been going for home runs since the end of the 2015 season. Moreover, The Book taught us (or, at least, taught me) that fly-ball hitters are more effective against two-seaming, sinker-ball-type arms. The A’s, as you might know, took advantage of this tendency several years back.

More and more pitchers have replaced four-seam fastballs with two-seam fastballs, though that trend leveled off in 2015 and 2016. In the AL West, the Rangers ranked fifth in two-seam-fastball usage last season according to PITCHf/x (18.4%), and the A’s ranked fifth in sinkers (11%) as designated by PITCHf/x.

Valbuena crushes two-seam fastballs and sinkers, as you can see via Baseball Savant:

Here’s some video evidence from last season:

There’s also this related fact: fly-ball hitters tend to hit into few double plays.

The Angels ground into 147 double plays last season, second most in the majors after the Blue Jays. The Angels ranked 27th in baserunning runs above average (-16.6), and 17th in steals (73).

Valbuena has grounded into eight or fewer double plays in three of the last four seasons.

Valbuena is going to help a right-handed-heavy Angels infield. Since 2014, his wRC+ against right-handed pitching (126) ranks 51st in baseball according to FanGraphs leaderboards.

He’s going to help against against two-seam fastballs. He’s going to help a team that grounded into a lot of double plays suffer fewer of those potential big-inning killers in 2017. And, considering where the Angels reside in the projected standings, every bit of added value could be crucial.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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7 years ago

” If the club holds Trout and struggles to compete in the AL West, it would be akin to purchasing Cezanne’s “The Card Players” and then proceeding to lock the painting in a secure storage facility for few to enjoy. ”

You do know that this is in fact the way private ownership of art typically works, right? There are untold numbers of masterpieces in this position everywhere in the world. To say nothing of Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin:

By comparison the Angels management is positively generous: we’ll let you watch Mike Trout, as long as you don’t mind us surrounding him with the mediocre-to-bad . . .

7 years ago
Reply to  Travis Sawchik

In order to come up with percentages, we’d need definitions of both the class of high-value masterpieces and of “secure storage places for few to enjoy,” which of course I am taking to mean the mansions of the rich. If there’s a point to my comment beyond the joke, though, it’s about reproductions and context. Clearly the Angels management, unlike Martin Shkreli, passes the reproduction test: they certainly want us to pay for, and watch, their masterpiece, and give us many options about how to do so. So this is not so much like locking up the Cezanne in a place no one can see it, as it is like displaying the Cezanne in a gallery surrounded by pedestrian and otherwise incomparable work, and then asking a high price to enter the gallery.

7 years ago
Reply to  Kenny

” If the club holds Trout and struggles to compete in the AL West, it would be akin to purchasing Cezanne’s “The Card Players” and then proceeding to lock the painting in a secure storage facility for few to enjoy. ”

At least the optimist can hope for that strategy. Better than purchasing Cassius Coolidge’s ‘Dogs Playing Poker’ and then displaying it prominently next to ‘Velvet Elvis’.