The more I look at the Mariners’ acquisition of Danny Valencia, the more I love it. The easy analysis sees Valencia as a lefty masher, who can competently play at any of the corner positions. Over the last four years, he’s sporting a 148 wRC+ against southpaws, good for 12th in the majors. Jerry Dipoto recognized a need and filled it with someone who has truly excelled. But over the last two years, Danny Valencia has shown that he’s not just a lefty masher, he’s been able to hit right-handed pitching too.
First, let’s just compare how Valencia has performed against righties prior to 2015 and since:
His improvement is immediately obvious. Prior to 2015, Valencia could not make contact with any authority against righties. When he’s had a successful year at the plate, it’s been fueled by a high BABIP so it’s not surprising to see the wide difference in BABIP above. Over the last two years, his line drive rate against right-handed pitching has been five points higher than against lefties. But whatever adjustments he made in Oakland also helped him double his home run per fly ball rate and increase his ISO by 60 points.
While I don’t have any quotes from Valencia about the specific adjustments he made, I think we can discern them ourselves pretty easily. Below are two heatmaps, showing Valencia’s ISO per pitch against right-handed pitching. The first covers 2011–2014:
All of Valencia’s success in this period comes in quadrants you’d expect—right down the middle and inside pitches pulled for power. Now here’s his heatmap from the last two years:
All of a sudden, Valencia is demolishing pitches in the upper half of the strike zone. Even more impressive is his success on pitches up and away. If he’s pulling those pitches, he’s not going to have the type of power we see above. That tells me he’s adjusted his approach at the plate. Instead of trying to pull everything to generate his power, he’s going with the pitch and hitting for power to the opposite field.
Here’s a spray chart of his batted balls on pitches up and away (zones 2, 3, 6, and 12 if you’re using Baseball Savant) over the last two years:
There are four opposite field home runs, a handful of doubles and lineouts to deep right-center field, and a bunch of singles hit up the middle and to right field. I already mentioned his line drive rate against righties but this spray chart shows us the fruits of Valencia’s adjustments. He’s hitting line drives up the middle and to the right side off of pitches you would expect someone with good bat control to handle.
Valencia has now had two years in a row with an above average offensive line against right-handed pitching. That’s not an insignificant sample anymore. He’s made some real adjustments to his approach at the plate and has turned himself into a more complete hitter. It would probably be good to sit him against particularly tough righties, but his success against righties gives the team more options. Scott Servais may employ him in a flexible platoon at first or in right field, but if Vogelbach or Gamel have trouble adjusting to the majors, I don’t think the team would be hurt if Valencia saw 200–300 plate appearances against right-handed pitching in 2017.