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Diagnosing Danny Valencia

Let’s take a look at Danny Valencia’s early season results.

MLB: Houston Astros at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Entering Monday’s mashing of the Marlins, Danny Valencia had a 33 wRC+ through 12 games. He had yet to hit a home run, struggling to provide reliability or power from his spot in the lineup. This is far from the start any had envisioned for Valencia, and that may partially have to do with the fact that he’s not occupying the role we expected.

Valencia has failed to consistently hit righties over his seven years in the bigs, though he has crushed left-handed pitchers throughout his career. The hope was that he would platoon at first base with Dan Vogelbach, taking advantage of his career 139 wRC+ against southpaws, but unfortunately a difficult spring for Vogelbach forced Valencia to assume the role of everyday first baseman to start the season. Consequently, his production has taken a hit.

Valencia has never been a quick starter, evidenced by his career 79 wRC+ in April, and his struggles to hit right-handed pitchers are equally prevalent in the first month of the season.

Still, the 32-year-old first baseman is on pace for the worst opening month of his career. How could this be? Well, one thing that sticks out is his usage thus far. 86% of his plate appearances in 2017 have come against right-handed pitchers. In the previous two years, just over 63% of his April plate appearances were against righties. His difficulty conquering same-handed pitchers would be diluted if he had the luxury of facing more lefties; he’s posted a sub-100 wRC+ against lefties in just one April of his career.

Even if his usage hasn’t been ideal thus far, it fails to explain how he managed to be a productive hitter against righties last year, but can’t seem to find his way this year. One could argue that the rate at which he’s seen right-handers this year has prevented him from accumulating any sort of momentum. Baseball can be a streaky game, and confidence can go a long way in short-term success. A shortage of opportunities against left-handed pitchers has hampered his ability to start fast.

Another — and perhaps more alarming — reason for his lack of success against righties to start the season can be tied to plate discipline. Check out his walk-to-strikeout ratio from the previous two seasons compared to 2017.

His 30.2% strikeout rate isn’t exactly encouraging, but his 2.3% walk rate heading into Monday may be more cause for concern. Valencia’s impatience at the plate has led to fewer free passes, a multitude of strikeouts, and less than ideal results when the ball is put in play.

His 20.9% hard contact rate to start the season is substantially worse than any April in his career, and his trouble making solid contact may be a result of the pitches being thrown his way. 50.5% of the pitches he’s seen this year have been fastballs, a noticeable drop from his career mark of 59.7%. Similarly, only 40.5% of the pitches thrown his way in 2017 have been in the zone, while over the course of his career 48.5% have. Valencia is seeing a more diverse arsenal of pitches from opposing pitchers, a greater percentage of which have been out of the zone. As highlighted by his minuscule walk rate, he hasn’t been capitalizing on pitchers throwing what could have been balls. Instead, he’s swung at pitches that have missed the mark while watching pitches over the plate sail by, resulting in lower quality contact.

This is an instance where we can choose to be thankful for a small sample size — it’s too early to say that any one of the above ails is more than just noise. Every hitter experiences slumps, and hopefully this slow start can fade away seamlessly. In a just world, Valencia’s walk rate will regress towards the mean, as will his hard contact rate, and he’ll face more lefties than he has in the opening weeks of the season.

Who knows, after picking up three hits over the weekend, he might already be turning a corner. It will be refreshing to see a lefty on the bump for the Marlins tonight — in the smallest of sample sizes, Valencia has a 112 wRC+ against southpaws this season. But no one is questioning his ability to hit left-handers, the concern lies with his futility against righties to start the year. 14 games is far too soon to draw any conclusions, but it’s provided us with a few trends to keep an eye on as the season matures.