The Cleanup Hitter That Oakland Stole

This time of year, everyone’s a contender. So everyone’s talking about the things they can do in 2016, and the A’s are no different, highlighting their improved bullpen and increased power. Just last week they picked up Khris Davis, and when I was reading about that move, team officials noted that Davis will provide critical right-handed pop, along with Danny Valencia. Just from reading that sentence, you know two things: (1) the A’s won’t be anyone’s AL West favorites, and (2) Valencia has won himself some organizational fans.

It’s not as if Valencia has been hurting for chances, as teams have long recognized his ability to punish left-handed pitchers who dare enter the strike zone. Valencia has been treated as one of those useful players good enough to have but not good enough to keep. He debuted in 2010, and Oakland is his sixth major-league team, having been claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays in August. The Blue Jays had themselves a roster crunch, and they weren’t buying the initial evidence that Valencia had made himself more whole. You can understand why Toronto wound up doing what they did, but Oakland seized the opportunity and now they seem to have themselves an asset. The A’s could afford to see how real Valencia really was. All he did was conquer his biggest problem.

Let’s play some word association. When I say “Danny Valencia,” some of you might not think anything at all. Some others of you might just think “baseball.” Of the remainder, many will think “platoon.” That’s what Valencia was good at — he was a platoon-hitting righty, a guy you’d pull off the bench. During Valencia’s first five years, he was one of 185 players who batted at least 500 times against both righties and lefties. Here are the players with the biggest observed platoon splits, favoring southpaws:

Widest Platoon Splits, Favoring Lefties, 2010 – 2014
Player wRC+ vs. R wRC+ vs. L Difference
Danny Valencia 65 138 -73
Rajai Davis 69 132 -63
Shane Victorino 94 149 -55
Derek Jeter 81 133 -52
Gaby Sanchez 89 139 -50
Sean Rodriguez 68 118 -50
David Wright 116 165 -49
Jose Altuve 92 141 -49
Cody Ross 88 136 -48
Matt Wieters 86 134 -48
Jonny Gomes 84 132 -48
Minimum 500 plate appearances against both RHP and LHP.

Valencia had a 73-point split, and that was 10 points greater than the runner-up and 18 points greater than third. He was almost like a caricature of a platoon hitter, ranking in the top 20 percent against lefties but ranking in the bottom 10 percent against righties. This is why Valencia got opportunities, but also why he floated around — teams are always looking for power, but Valencia had a glaring weakness, and he didn’t really make up for it in the field. So he was both interesting and replaceable. You can’t blame the Blue Jays for just thinking about his track record.

Yet last year, Valencia looked unfamiliar. Not against lefties — he kept hitting lefties just the same. But against righties, he was better. He finished with a reverse platoon split, by 12 points, mashing righties to the tune of a 140 wRC+ that put him by names like Nelson Cruz, Buster Posey, and Giancarlo Stanton. It’s not even something the A’s were necessarily expecting; when they picked him up, they thought they’d use him situationally. Valencia earned more of a look, and he wound up looking a lot like an everyday slugger.

I haven’t found much in the way of insight. This might be the best I can do:

“I’ve always believed in myself. I’ve always believed I can hit right-handers as well as left-handers,” he said. “I made some adjustments in the offseason to be more successful, and the results have shown that I can do that. In the past, teams have always said, ‘The numbers don’t lie,’ but this year I think I’ve done well.”

Q: What did Danny Valencia do?

A: Make adjustments.

Q: What sort of adjustments?

A: Some of them.

It doesn’t tell us much, but run with that quote — “the numbers don’t lie.” They didn’t lie about Valencia before, and I can’t imagine they’ve started now. The numbers demonstrate that Valencia was mashing righties, which is something he’d never consistently done before. That’s an eye-opening improvement.

From Baseball Savant, last season, 186 righties had at least 100 balls in play tracked by Statcast. Valencia ranked 11th in average batted-ball speed. There were 132 righties who had at least 100 balls in play against righties tracked by Statcast. Valencia ranked fifth in average batted-ball speed, sandwiched by Manny Machado and Yoenis Cespedes. He tied Edwin Encarnacion in the rate of those batted balls hit at least 100 miles per hour. Valencia was frequently making big contact, and to go along with that big contact, here’s a big table:

Danny Valencia Against Righties, Career
Year(s) PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+ GB% IFFB% HR/FB% Hard% Pull%
2010 – 2014 993 5% 21% 0.124 0.264 65 45% 16% 8% 27% 42%
2015 229 5% 25% 0.271 0.329 140 51% 6% 27% 36% 49%

There’s a ton of information in there. You can’t ignore the second column — the fact of the matter is, Valencia’s history overwhelms his most recent year. The question is about weighting. How much should we care about Valencia’s history, given the adjustments he made prior to 2015? He didn’t become particularly disciplined, but he still seemed to show better bat control, as evidenced by the increased homer rate, the increased hard-hit rate, and the decreased pop-up rate. One thing you don’t expect from a power explosion is a higher rate of grounders, but Valencia was getting under fewer baseballs, knocking a lot of them square. Which is the whole point. Worry less about the grounders, and focus more on the outcomes. Valencia made more good contact, and he obliterated righties as a result.

Here’s a righty who went and got himself obliterated:

That’s just in there for an illustration, but it also helps drive home the point that Valencia wasn’t hitting squeakers out of the yard. He’s a hitter with considerable power, and where before he pulled 30 of his 37 home runs, last year he pulled just nine of 18. By doing whatever it is he did, Valencia unlocked the power within him against all stripes of pitcher.

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. Yet while Valencia is 31 years old, he’s defensively versatile, he’s under team control two more seasons, and it seems like last year he might’ve figured out how to hit as an everyday player. This could be a late-blooming No. 4 or No. 5 hitter, dropped by a contender and picked up off waivers. Danny Valencia isn’t going to win the A’s a pennant by himself, but if the A’s were to pull off the unlikely, Valencia would probably be right in the middle. In a couple of ways.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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8 years ago

In 2015 he employed a larger leg kick as opposed to a toe tap, an adjustment made by teammates Jose Bautista and Josh Donaldson just before their breakouts.

8 years ago
Reply to  josephd10

The article made me think of Bautista and the leg kick too, but if you watch the video and other videos of DV, there isn’t a leg kick. I don’t see any difference in his stance, load, or swing from 2014 to 2015, but I’m not talented enough to see those differences.

8 years ago
Reply to  satfick

I can’t get the video to load, but it’s very interesting if it doesn’t show there.
This article has a few example from this season of a leg kick:

8 years ago
Reply to  satfick

I think he may not have used the big leg kick in 2 strike counts.