Will the real Danny Valencia please stand up?

Let me offer the understatement of 2010: Danny Valencia has been pretty darn good since he got called up on June 2.  Now let me be more specific: Danny Valencia is hitting .400/.449/.511 in 98 plate appearances since his promotion, and is leading all major league third basemen in OPS in July.  Two nights ago he hit his first major league homerun - a grand slam, of course - and he's compiled 14 hits and 8 RBIs over the past four games.  Have I mentioned that the early returns on his defense have been positive, and even defensive metrics like UZR and the Plus/Minus system have given him solid preliminary marks?

Yeah, Danny Valencia has been pretty darn good since he got called up.

Given the fact that Valencia has worn the mantle of "third baseman of the future" for so long, I'm sure many Twins fans who have watched him play the past few nights are starting to wonder why in the world it took so long for Danny to get his shot in the majors.  Third base has been an offensive wasteland for the Twins for several seasons, and Valencia is looking like the best bat we've had at the position since Corey Koskie departed after the 2004 season. 

Of course, I'm sure most readers that frequent this site know things aren't nearly that simple.

Valencia hit well in the lower level of the minors, showing quite a bit of pop and hitting for a good average (although with consistently low walk rates).  Unfortunately, his pop diminished considerably in AAA, while his lack of plate discipline remained:

Year

Age

Level

PA

AVG

OBP

SLG

ISOP

BB%

2006

21

RK

218

0.299

0.353

0.487

0.188

6.90%

2007

22

A

271

0.302

0.373

0.500

0.198

10.30%

2007

22

A+

250

0.291

0.332

0.422

0.131

6.40%

2008

23

A+

251

0.336

0.402

0.518

0.182

10.80%

2008

23

AA

284

0.289

0.335

0.483

0.194

6.30%

2009

24

AA

252

0.284

0.373

0.482

0.198

12.30%

2009

24

AAA

282

0.290

0.309

0.457

0.167

2.80%

2010

25

AAA

202

0.292

0.347

0.373

0.081

6.90%

Given his relatively poor showing at AAA, some very smart people were skeptical of Danny's ability to have an impact in the majors.  The money quote from Fangraphs:

"According to Minor League Splits, Valencia's work between Double-A and Triple-A in 2009 translated to a .248/.285/.389 line in the majors. His tepid 2010 works out to a .255/.302/.324 major league equivalent triple-slash. CHONE (.252/.295/.388 pre-season projection) and ZiPS (.251/.294/.377) forecast similarly mild lines for Valencia in the show.

As a mid-twenties farm talent who doesn't work many deep counts and doesn't possess mammoth power, Valencia has the look of a less-than-ideal option as an everyday player in the big leagues."

Mr. Valencia would like to respectfully disagree with that previous assessment.

So how do we explain Valencia's performance to date?  Well, I think we can all agree that he's playing a little over his head right now.  How much? Let's look at some more numbers:

Yr

Age

Level

GB%

LD%

FB%

BABIP

HR/FB

2006

21

RK

45.60%

17.80%

36.70%

0.344

14.77%

2007

22

A/A+

55.40%

12.60%

32.00%

0.351

14.48%

2008

23

A+/AA

43.50%

19.00%

36.70%

0.38

10.96%

2009

24

AA/AAA

50.50%

14.20%

35.10%

0.318

9.73%

2010

25

AAA

37.50%

21.70%

40.10%

0.358

0.00%

2010

25

MLB

41.80%

20.30%

38.00%

0.449

3.30%

So here we have a guy that is seemingly doing everything the same he was going in AAA - similar GB/LD/FB rates, similar lack of power, similarly low walk rates - and having dramatically different results.  So what's changed?  Let's just say a suspiciously high number of balls in play have turned into hits for Valencia:

Split 

AB 

2B 

3B 

HR 

BA 

SLG 

OPS 

BAbip 

Ground Balls

35

15

0

0

0

0.429

0.429

0.858

0.429

Fly Balls

28

6

1

0

1

0.214

0.357

0.571

0.185

Line Drives

16

15

6

0

0

0.938

1.313

2.250

0.938

 

Um, wow.

 

BABIP

AL AVG

Ground Balls

0.429

0.231

Fly Balls

0.185

0.142

Line Drives

0.938

0.723

That is simply unsustainable.  Now, I'm not smart enough to make a good estimate of what Valencia's BABIP on each of these different types of batted balls "should" be, but let's imagine for a second that Valencia's BABIP this season mirrored the league average.  He'd lose about seven hits on ground balls, another one from his fly balls, and three more from his line drives.  For sake of argument, let's let him keep all of his extra base hits, but turn 11 of his singles into outs.  What would his batting line look like?

.278/.337/.389

That looks a lot closer to what we might have expected from Valencia based on his recent minor league track record.  It's also a pretty good approximation of the numbers Nick Punto posted in 2006 and 2008.  (Remember, though, not to take these specific numbers too seriously, given the limited sample sizes we're working with.  If, for example, Danny's homerun two nights ago caught a gust of wind and fell for a warning track out, his "expected" batting line would be .267/.327/.344.  That's a 55 point swing in OPS.)

OK, let me repeat what I said before: I don't know what sort of BABIP we should expect from Valencia, therefore the very rough estimate I posted above may be treating Danny unfairly.  I know there are many different "expected BABIP" formulas out there, and I'm sure some are very good.  However, since I don't know which are reliable and which are junk, I won't throw them into the discussion here, but I welcome others to contribute in the comments below. 

I'll also add that I have nothing but respect for what Valencia is doing right now.  He looks focused and confident at the plate, and there is no denying how good his results have been thus far.  Let's also remember how important his bat is to the team right now, considering Morneau is out of the lineup. 

All that being said, no player in baseball can have 94% of their line drives turn into hits.  No player can get hits on 43% of their grounders (no, not even Luis Castillo).  It just doesn't happen.  While Valencia is absolutely raking right now, eventually he's going to have some well-hit balls find fielders' gloves.

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