Friday, March 18, 2011

Position Analysis: Third Base

Likely Starter: Danny Valencia

Photo by Jim Donton
Potential Backups: Matt Tolbert, Luke Hughes

Danny Valencia seems hell bent on proving everyone wrong.

Drafted in the 19th round back in 2006 despite his impressive productivity for a major college program, the native Floridian signed rather than returning for a senior year, eager to showcase his ability in the pros.

Valencia did just that. He hit .311/.365/.505 during a 48-game debut at rookie-level Elizabethton after signing in '06, and throughout his steady ascent of the minor leagues he never really stopped hitting. Questions occasionally swirled about his plate discipline, his true power potential and his maturity, but through it all Valencia just kept hitting. He never posted a batting average lower than .284 at any level, and every single year after being drafted he showed enough to earn a midseason promotion.

One could certainly argue that last year's promotion -- from Triple-A to the majors -- wasn't earned. Valencia was hitting .292 at the time he was called up, but sported a mediocre .720 OPS and had managed zero home runs in 202 plate appearances.

He was called up out of necessity. Nick Punto had been staggeringly awful at the dish and Ron Gardenhire had resorted to Michael Cuddyer at third. The team was desperate for a legitimate option at the hot corner, but expectations for Valencia were set low.

All he did was hit .311/.351/.448 with seven homers and 40 RBI over 85 games, finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year vote.

The third baseman's determination to prove everyone wrong seems to fit with his personality. Anyone who's spent time around him will tell you the kid is cocky. But that cockiness is not to be confused with arrogance. What Valencia possesses is an amiable self-assuredness, at times brash but rarely pompous. Frankly, it's a trait I wish more Twins players possessed (but, of course, it's one that tends not to mesh well with Gardenhire).

Like any player coming off an out-of-nowhere rookie splash, Valencia is a candidate to regress this season. Depending on your viewpoint, that likelihood may be increased by a rather lofty .345 BABIP last season (though his imperviousness to poor batting averages in the minors would seem to suggest he has a skill).

So far this spring, Valencia has been one of the most impressive players in camp, hitting .393 with a cool 1.095 OPS. If a sophomore slump is supposed to be setting in, no one has apparently informed him as of yet.

Should their newly entrenched third baseman succumb to advanced scouting reports or injury, the Twins would look to either Matt Tolbert or Luke Hughes. But I don't expect that to happen, and I'm sure Valencia would agree.

Predicted 2011 Hitting Line for Valencia: .290/.340/.410, 10 HR, 50 RBI


run-of-the-mill fan said...

Seems to be a very realistic line prediction to me as well. However, I'd really like to get a good look at Hughes. Obviously the sample size is excessively small, but if spring training is any indication, boy he can hit! It makes me wonder how he may be used in the event that say Casilla underperforms at the plate or Nishioka gets hurt (from what I understand, he's a bit of a utility infielder [please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong]). I guess I'd just like to see more about how he fits into the big picture, given the Twins current offensive situation.

J.D said...

Nick, I think BABIP is an overrated statistic. Good hitters don't just get contact, they get good contact. I think BABIP is more useful in evaluating pitchers than hitters. Danny V is legit.

RK said...

JD - it's true that hitters have much more control over their BABIP than do pitchers, but there's still a range that is sustainable. Over the last ten years, the lowest hitter BABIP is Tony Bautista's .247 and the highest is Ichiro's .357. It's rather unreasonable to expect Aaron Hill to repeat last year's .196 babip even if he is really bad at hitting line drives and beating out ground balls. Sure it's possible for random people to be outside or near the edges of that range in a given season, but chances are they won't sustain it. As Nick mentions, Danny has a history of above average babip throughout the minors so he's not likely to regress back to a .280 babip, but staying at .345 is highly unlikly-- Bill James has him pegged for a .330 babip which would equate to about a .290 batting average instead of the .311 he posted last year.

Josh said...

I agree that we'll see some regression on the BA, because the BABIP was really high and there's almost certainly going to be some drop-off from that (just bad luck if nothing else), but I think there's a pretty good chance the SLG% stays high as Valencia really started turning on the ball as the season progressed last year.

The approach at the plate for him has been very good so far and he seems to be on a good progression. Nick's projected line is reasonable and would certainly be acceptable for the Twins 3B.

What really impressed me was how much more solid Valencia's D turned out to be. He still needs to improve his footwork out there, but his arm was better than advertised and if Morneau is back at 1B I feel really good about Danny V making plays over at third.

TT said...

"Sure it's possible for random people to be outside or near the edges of that range in a given season, but chances are they won't sustain it."

That's because it is tough to keep a job in the major leagues when you can't hit. And hitters who produce consistently crappy BABIP can't hit, so they aren't in the major leagues.

I would not make any bets on Valencia. At least one analysis of how he hit different pitches last year suggests he has serious holes in his swing.

If that is true, what we may be seeing is the same phenomena that we did in his minor league career. Hot starts, followed by substantial cooling off when pitchers figured him out.

That pattern of happened again in the major leagues. In August/September, he only hit .276/.306/.410 and .274/.304/.453.

That said, Valencia seemed to make some adjustments last spring at AAA. Those seemed to play out well for him when he was called up. So it may be that he can adjust again when pitchers find his weaknesses.
He hit 5 of his 7 home runs in September and apparently Pavano told him he looked "pull happy". So it may be that, rather than any fatal flaws caused the late season decline.

But like I said, I wouldn't put any bets on Valencia.

Andrew said...

Nick, I think that is going to be a pretty accurate state line for Valencia this season. And, if he bats 8th in the lineup, the Twins really don't need a lot of power out of him. There are plenty of guys (Mauer, Morneau, Cuddyer, Kubel, Thome, Young) to rely on for HRs, doubles and triple-digit RBI. If Valencia can hit singles with occasional powers, get on base and help turn the lineup over, all while playing solid defense, he will have a successful year.

Anonymous said...

That projected stat line is flawed as hell. .290 average with 50 rbi's makes no sense. Look for a .300 average with 90 rbi's my friend.


Matt said...

With everyone regressing, according to everyone, this team will be lucky to finish fourth this year...

Anonymous said...

Its not projecting "regression" to suggest a player with three months of major league experience will play closer to the last two months than his first month.