What Happened To All The Swagger?
What has gone wrong for the Twins third baseman?
In 2011, I attributed his sudden decline to a bit of the “sophomore slump monster” – one in which his line drive rate remained relatively consistent with his previous season but the amount of hits that found grass declined significantly. In 2010, he held a solid .771 batting average on his line drives. This past season his batting average on liners dropped to .651, well below the league average. The theory was, if he produced line drives at the near 20% rate he had over the past two seasons, this would likely equal out for the better.
Unfortunately, both Valencia’s plate discipline and his wellspring of ropes have substantially decline so far in 2012.
Addressing the latter first, Valencia has traded the once prevalent liners for a bunch of bounding grounders and harmless infield pop-ups. To date, his line drive rate has checked in slightly below the 14% mark while his ground ball rate has ballooned to 52%. However, when he does get underneath the ball, he has provided little damage, knocking 33% of his fly balls to infielders.
Meanwhile, Valencia’s patience at the plate is about as thin as a fungo bat. In addition to swinging at a high clip this season, he’s chasing a heavy volume of pitches outside of the strike zone. According to Fangraphs.com’s plate discipline numbers, he has offered at 42% of all out-of-zone pitches, well above the league’s 29% norm. With that lack of zone discipline, it is clear why he has only coaxed one walk compared to 17 strikeouts.
Between his contact and his plate discipline, the outcome for him has been laughably bad: a .220/.230/.339 hitting line that has incited calls from fans to see more Sean Burroughs, who has not seen regular playing time since 2005, on the field.
How did it get so bad for Valencia?
The Twins coaching staff attempted to correct a hitch this offseason, which they said added a longer loop to his swing, as well as encourage his to stop fixating on pulling the ball and hoping that it would improve his .246 batting average in 2011. This spring 1500ESPN.com’s Phil Mackey spoke with Valencia who claimed that one of his goals this year was to use the entire field better. And, so far, Valencia is failing at that objective.
Thus far in 2012, heading into Tuesday night’s game, Valencia had put 44 balls into play and has taken seven of those to the opposite field. While the 16% opposite field rate isn’t disappointing in itself (after all, in his solid 2010 season, he went oppo just 19% of the time), it is that pitchers have consistently baited the Twins third baseman into swinging at pitches on the outer-half of the strike zone and yet he has pulled the ball at a high margin (52%).
Compare these two swing charts. In his first stint at the major league level (on the left), the Valencia scouting report was not completely disseminated and, as such, he received a high portion of inside and middle of the zone type pitches. In 2012 (on the right), the word has spread throughout the league and opponents know that Valencia is susceptible when being pitched away – specifically from right-handed pitchers.
This season, with pitchers attacking the outside portion of the plate, Valencia has maintained a questionable aggressive approach (swinging at a career-high 47% clip) and has also kept his pull-happy tendencies in spite of opponents begging him to go with the pitch. Because he is swinging at so many pitches on the outer-half of the plate while trying to pull them, it is easy to see why his groundball rate has swelled so quickly.
Valencia has demonstrated that he can be a high average, moderate power hitter in the minors and in segments of his major league career. What is needed is a re-calibration of the strike zone. Perhaps his early slump has caused him to press harder at the plate, swing more frequently with disregard for location, and forget the main focus of the off-season – to hit the ball to all fields.
Let’s remember that it is early in the season and there is plenty of time to turn it all around. Still, with his continued insistence on pulling almost every pitch, frustration is mounting from the manager and Valencia’s playing time is quite possibly hanging by a very thin thread at this juncture.