17 September 2013

Danny Valencia Is Doing His Best to Fix O's DH Problem

Photo: Keith Allison
For much of the 2013 season, the Orioles have had a designated hitter problem. Nolan Reimold got off to a slow start, never recovered, and needed another operation on his spine. Wilson Betemit, counted on to be the team's main weapon at DH against right-handed pitching, suffered a knee injury during spring training and did not return until late August. He went hitless in 10 at-bats, and he was designated for assignment yesterday. Other Dan Duquette-signed misfits have not fared much better. Steve Pearce, battling a wrist injury all season, has batted just .241/.328/.361 in 122 plate appearances. Chris Dickerson has hit .240/.269/.404 in 108 plate appearances, though he's basically just a defensive replacement. Henry Urrutia's minor league success has not translated to the majors (.276/.276/.310 in 58 plate appearances). Travis Ishikawa, unsurprisingly, wasn't the answer either. And Mike Morse, acquired at the end of August for Xavier Avery, has three hits (all singles) in 24 plate appearances without a walk. As of mid-July, O's designated hitters were batting a combined .197/.261/.382.

None of the above players should really be relied upon to consistently hit major league pitching, but then again you could say the same thing about Danny Valencia, who currently has a batting line of .317/.344/.618 in 128 plate appearances. Valencia, who started the year at Norfolk and has been shipped between Triple-A and the majors a couple times this season, now seems to be locked in as the team's primary DH -- and for good reason. He's been on fire since August, collecting 25 hits (and a walk) in 54 plate appearances. He has absolutely destroyed left-handed pitching this year, hitting a ridiculous .378/.400/.683 in 85 plate appearances. Even Chris Davis has to respect those numbers. In about half as many trips to the plate against righties, Valencia hasn't been efficient at reaching base (.233 OBP), but he has hit for power (.488 SLG). Without Betemit's injury and subsequent ineffectiveness, the two likely would have formed a decent right/lefty DH combination.

Mostly thanks to Valencia's tear, O's DHs are hitting a slightly less embarrassing .230/.287/.413. The on-base percentage is still too low, but the power is there. Maybe the O's can rectify that issue next season.

It probably goes without saying, though, but Valencia is not this good. His .348 BABIP is 53 points above his major league average of .295, and his HR/FB rate is nearly 20% (career rate around 9%). So he's due for some regression, certainly, but there's no reason why he can't continue to hit at an absurd level for just 13 more games, which is what the Orioles really need right now considering they are just two games back in the Wild Card race.

But beyond this season, Valencia still has some value as a lefty masher. And if he continues to not chase pitches out of the zone, which he's currently doing and is more in line with his impressive rookie campaign, he could at least be a competent DH/bench bat.

(Quick tangent: The Orioles are going to have some offseason lineup issues to address. Manny Machado certainly has plenty of upside, but you can't really say that about many other O's hitters. Davis is having an amazing season, but there's no guarantee he posts similar numbers going forward. Adam Jones is steady, and J.J. Hardy is having a nice rebound season. But Nate McLouth is a free agent after this season and likely will not be able to be retained for the previous low price of $2 million. Brian Roberts's deal finally comes off the books, but is Jonathan Schoop ready? And what about the offensive struggles of Matt Wieters and especially Nick Markakis? With those main parts, the O's still have the makings of a decent lineup, but relying on Davis, Machado, and Jones to do most of the heavy lifting may not be wise. Duquette and Buck Showalter may need to consider bringing in a new corner outfielder, second baseman, or another DH option -- or maybe all three.)


Jon Shepherd said...

One thing I find interesting about Valencia is that if you forget 2012 happened, his BABIP is about 100 points higher against lefties. Now 350 plate appearances is not a lot, but it seems that if you contain him to only southpaws then you wind up with a masher or, at least, a guy who hits well. The issue has been simply how horrible he is against right handers and that he does not really play any position well.

Him and Morneau or McLouth with a real LF could be a solution.

Unknown said...

I agree that a platoon at DH is likely to provide more production, but the problem is that if the Orioles will continue to carry twelve pitchers (or more), they can't afford to carry them. If they devote two roster spots to DH, then their bench is at best the backup catcher, one backup outfielder, and one backup infielder.

And I still wouldn't give up on Urrutia just yet. I'd rather give him a full shot than gamble on Morneau's health.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

I'm not advocating that the O's give up on Urrutia, but I think I'd feel better about his chances if he were a better defensive outfielder. But he's not, so if he doesn't hit, that's a problem.

Philip said...

Jon, are you still down on Nate? Your,"...with a real LF" comment was rather snippy.

Jon Shepherd said...

Snippy...eh, maybe it was snippy.

If you remember a few months back, I put forward the idea that McLouth's success had been tied to him no longer trying to muscle the ball out. He was putting more balls on the ground and more line drives. However, his swing has gotten loopy and long again...doing the things that made me concerned last season in that he would try to play like he did when he had more power. He needs a fly ball rate of 30%, not 45%. He is too weak to be successful at 45%.

I think he is a mid-level platoon LF. He is not a full time player unless he can show he can succeed. Looping and hitting fly balls is not how he will succeed.