31 May 2010
This post comes courtesy of Bill Parker, from "The Daily Something." Providing excellent write-ups on baseball topics on a daily basis, The Daily Something is a site that needs to be in your bookmarks. Because this post relates to the Twins, Bill asked me to double-post it here, as well as his blog. To reach the author, you can contact him via Twitter.
It's funny how certain players come to take up certain lofty positions in their team's fans' collective consciousness, and you just have no idea how they might have gotten there. To me, one such player is Twins prospect Danny Valencia. Taken in the 19th round in the 2006 draft out of the University of Miami, Valencia didn't make the top ten of any team prospect list I can find, reputable or otherwise, for either 2007 or 2008, despite some pretty solid numbers in the low minors in 2007.
Then came the 2008 season, which is perceived as his big breakout year. Valencia started the year in high-A Fort Myers, the same place he'd spent the last 60 games of 2007, and he played another 61 games there, hitting .336/.402/.518 with 19 doubles and 5 homers. Valencia was approximately the average age for that league, and it's not a great hitters' league, so those numbers were legitimately encouraging, though (a) it was way too early to get too excited and (b) those numbers were bolstered by a .392 average on balls in play, an average well over his career norms (and well past anything that would be sustainable by anybody). Moved up to AA New Britain in mid-June, Valencia put up much less exciting numbers, but still promising ones for his first trip around the league: .289/.334/.485, 10 HR in 287 PA, with a still high but more reasonable .356 BABIP. Across the two levels, he ended the year hitting .311/.366/.500. Per the wRC+ numbers on FanGraphs, Valencia was about 56% better than average for Fort Myers, but just 17% better in New Britain.
The Twins again chose not to promote Valencia to begin the 2009 season, and he got another 57 games in New Britain. Once again, Valencia put up promising numbers on his second time through a league, hitting .284/.373/.482 (134 wRC+) with 7 homers in 252 PA, numbers which did not depend (for once) on an unreasonably high BABIP. And most encouragingly, he nearly doubled his walk rate; Valencia took a free pass in 12.3% of his plate appearances, up from just 6.3% in his 2008 New Britain tour. He was right around the average age for his league, and he really seemed to have started figuring things out.
Then came the call up to AAA Rochester in late June. Valencia continued to show decent power and to hit for a solid average with a reasonable BABIP, but the patience Valencia seemed to find in his second trip through New Britain was lost again...and lost completely. In 71 games and 269 PA, his walk rate plummeted to an eye-popping 2.8%, and he managed just a .305 OBP despite a .286 batting average, posting a perfectly average 100 wRC+. Repeating in Rochester in 2010, he's improved his walk rate (back to its barely acceptable pre-2009 level of around 6%), but his power has disappeared; in 46 games (which is what's showing on BBREF as of Monday night), he has zero homers. He's hit .303/.356/.388, and he's back to relying on a very high BABIP (currently .372, by my calculations). It's a good bet that unless he makes some real changes, those numbers will start looking worse before they get better.
So it's been a pretty bumpy road for Valencia. For all that, though, if he had been a high school draftee and was still 22 or 23 years old, Valencia would look like a very promising prospect. But he's 25, and will turn 26 before the season ends. It's certainly not unheard of for players to get a lot better at or beyond Valencia's age, but it's no longer a good bet. For planning purposes, unless the scouts have seen something to make them think Valencia is a very special case (and I don't think they have), you have to assume that what you see is more or less what you're going to get.
And what you see doesn't translate well to the big leagues. Not well at all. Using the Minor League Equivalency Calculator made available on MinorLeagueSplits.com, I plugged in his career AAA numbers to see how we could expect those 117 games and 434 PA to translate to Minnesota. Here's what it came out with:
.256/.285/.366, 452 AB, 33 2B, 0 3B, 6 HR, 17 BB, 75 K
His superficially prettier AA numbers come out almost exactly the same way. There's no wRC+ associated with that, but as luck would have it, that's almost exactly J.J. Hardy's current line (.238/.285/.369), and FanGraphs gives him an unsightly 78 wRC+. That's borderline acceptable for a slick-fielding shortstop like Hardy, but not for a barely-passably-fielding third baseman like Valencia. And for what it's worth, the CHONE and ZIPS projection systems expected about the same thing, calling for wRC+es of 79 and 76, respectively.
Here's another comparison that should throw water on Twins fans' collective pro-Valencia fire: Nick Punto's career wRC+ is 78, and his last two before this season were 99 and 80. I've gone on record as being pro-Punto, but it's not because of his bat, it's because his fantastic defense, his baserunning and his ability to draw a walk make him (in my opinion) a roughly average starting third baseman even despite his inability to hit. Those are three things -- well, I don't know much about his baserunning, but definitely his defense and ability to draw a walk -- that Valencia most assuredly does not have.
Or, to put it another way, all the best methods available -- his MLEs, CHONE, and ZiPS -- point to the same one sad conclusion: Valencia, as a Major League player, looks a lot like Nick Punto, except without any of those things that make Punto a useful player. Put yet another way: blech.
The interesting thing is that most analysts seem to recognize this. Yes, he's crept into the organization's top ten prospects on most lists, but usually at number 6 or 7; past occupants of those slots include Alexi Casilla and Jason Pridie. Unless your organization is very deep, your #6 or #7 prospect is not usually going to be a guy you expect to be very likely to contribute as a starter. Especially not if he's already 25, and especially not if you're expecting him to start contributing right away. So the analysts don't see it. I'm guessing the team doesn't see it, either; with the less-than-formidable Punto and Brendan Harris blocking his path, if the team thought Valencia had anything significant to contribute right now, he'd be up already.
It's the Twins fans (perhaps encouraged by the manager at some point), and some bloggers, who have taken it upon themselves to conclude that Valencia is a long-term answer at third base. And maybe he is. Anything can happen, and from what I've seen, he sure looks like a player. But he hasn't done anything to show that he can handle it. His performance so far gives some reason for optimism for the future -- not much, given his age, but some -- but no reason to believe that Valencia is anything close to ready to step into the lineup and make a difference (at least not a positive one).
I hope I'm wrong. But if you're looking for a 3B for 2010 who's better than Punto or Harris, the numbers suggest that you're going to have to look outside the organization.