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September 19, 2013

Skewed Left

Danny Valencia and the Orioles' DH Merry-Go-Round

by Zachary Levine

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Even as he did it for the fifth day in a row, Orioles manager Buck Showalter acknowledged that it still isn’t easy to simply hand the DH position to breakout performer and at times playoff-hopes-keeper-aliver Danny Valencia.

That’s understandable. Not necessarily because of any concerns over small sample size or the severe platoon splits that have helped create Valencia’s .323/.358/.623 slash line in 137 plate appearances, but because Showalter hasn’t been able to decide on a DH all year.

Wednesday night marked Valencia’s team-leading 34th start at designated hitter, which is the lowest total number of starts of anyone who leads his team. That’s certainly reflective of what has been a general trend to diversify the starters at the position and use it to give partial days of rest, work in a platoon advantage, or generally just rotate playing time. Only two players—Billy Butler and Delmon Young—started at least 100 games at DH last season, although contrary to the trend, four already have this year—Butler, Victor Martinez, David Ortiz and Kendrys Morales.

At the other end of that consistency spectrum are the Orioles, who have started six different players at DH double-digit times and 10 different players at least four times. In fact, until last night, Orioles DH had been the position with the least consistency in the entire American League.

Position

Starts leader

Starts

Yankees 3B

Jayson Nix

33

Astros RF

L.J. Hoes

33

Orioles DH

Danny Valencia

34

Mariners C

Mike Zunino

39

Twins DH

Ryan Doumit

42

Astros LF

J.D. Martinez

43

Astros DH

Chris Carter

44

Athletics DH

Seth Smith

45

Blue Jays 2B

Emilio Bonifacio

49

For all their searching and searching—through Reimold, Urrutia, Pearce, Dickerson and some Roberts, on Wieters, on Davis, on Jones and Markakis—they found their bat-only guy in a pretty unlikely bat.

It’s the same Danny Valencia whom the Twins gave 608 plate appearances to just two years ago, only to find themselves with a sub-.300 OBP guy who further regressed and was dumped for a Gulf Coast Leaguer. He rode the Boston-Pawtucket shuttle a bit last year, and the O’s got him in a straight cash transaction this offseason, a career 0.3 win player without much of a role.

He could always do two things, though. He could always hit doubles—in his long minor league career, he averaged 38 doubles per 600 plate appearances. And he could always hit lefties. In his long and mostly unsuccessful season with the Twins, he had a platoon split of nearly 200 points in OPS, and to date, he’s a .279 True Average hitter against lefties and .211 against his fellow righties.

When Valencia ended Koji Uehara’s string of 37 consecutive batters retired with a triple that led to the winning run on Tuesday night, that was against a righty. So it was when he ended Jake Peavy’s no-hitter in the eighth inning Wednesday, now that he’s starting against righties. So too were home runs against Ramon Ortiz, R.A. Dickey, Lucas Harrell and a game-tying shot earlier this month against David Robertson in 51 total PAs against righties.

In all, he has 13 doubles and eight home runs, good for a slugging percentage that sits between that of Chris Davis and Mike Trout, albeit against a small and, until now, carefully selected set of opponents. He’s always been a doubles hitter, but the home run rate is something new.

“Power comes when you really learn who you are as a hitter,” Valencia said. “For me, knowing what I’m good at and what I’m not good at has really helped me to have my power numbers go up. Just in approach, maybe going up there looking for specific pitches and having more of a good game plan of what you’re trying to do.

“I’ve gotten stronger and those doubles have begun to go over the fence vs. when I first came to pro ball they were just in the gap,” he said.

But what about his future? He should certainly be given a shot next year, at least as a platoon DH and perhaps more of a full-time thing depending on whether this power against righties (.532 SLG) turns out to be real.

He turns 29 today, meaning he’s getting to the age where we don’t expect to see true breakout performances. Finding historical comparisons to his season is not easy.

Using Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, one can find nine (deep breath) non-rookie position players who had a .600 SLG season between ages 26-30 with between 100-300 PA, having never had even a .500 SLG season before.

And as tempting as it is to dismiss Valencia’s season as fluky—and it may very well be—the recent examples of players who have broken out like this even in so few at-bats have turned out to have much more successful careers than the previously foreseen Danny Valencia trajectory.

Luke Scott would be a desirable path. He was the same age when he threw up a .336/.426/.621 line in 249 Pas out of nowhere for the 2006 Astros. Even more desirable would be that of Nelson Cruz, the last player to fit the category. He had played parts of three seasons with no success until he went .330/.421/.609 in 2008 and became an All-Star the next season and first-division player for the years after. Cody Ross turned his 2007 into an excellent career too, and that’s the entirety of the list since the last strike.

(The others: A Mile High Stadium-aided Ellis Burks, the first real fluke on the list in Kurt Bevacqua, Gates Brown for the 1968 champion Tigers, Jerry Lynch, who got on an MVP ballot in 1961 despite 210 PAs, Johnny Blanchard, and Dusty Rhodes, who was also on an MVP ballot with 186 PAs.)

Wherever in that range Valencia eventually falls, he’s certainly helped keep things interesting in Baltimore, where the Orioles will need to win just about all of their games in the coming week-and-a-half, including the final three against the same Red Sox. He’s 28-for-60 in August and September, helping the O’s climb to within a game of the wild card.

“He’s done well with an opportunity that he’s had with a short stint,” Showalter said. “At this level, these are the best players in the world and you shouldn’t be surprised with anything they’re capable of doing.”

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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