Over the first two months of the 2017 season, Danny Valencia has arguably been one of the team's major scapegoats. It isn't hard to see why: through his first 69 not-so-nice plate appearances, he slashed just .145/.217/.226 - good for a putrid 22 wRC+. Combined with Taylor Motter murdering baseballs and Dan Vogelbach waiting in the wings, many called for Valencia's role in the lineup to be greatly diminished, if not eliminated altogether.
Fast forward to June 3rd, though, and Valencia's line is back to respectability. After an excellent day at the plate on Friday (3-3, 2B, HR, BB), his wRC+ sits at a barely above league-average 104. He has been on a tear at the plate, with a 142 wRC+ over his last 131 plate appearances. He's played a solid first base, and has generally been one of the more reliable hitters for a team that needs everyone it can get.
Yet he's still overlooked. fWAR has him at -0.3, in large part due to his awful baserunning (-6.2 BsR, easily the worst mark of his career), although bWAR is more bullish, giving him a mark of 0.5 going into Thursday's game. He's grounded into nine double plays, the most on the team - although three of those were in one very unfortunate game. Many have drawn comparisons to Adam Lind, which isn't indefensible - both players are reaching their mid-thirties, and they both got off to horrific starts in their Mariner tenures. Valencia has more value than Adam Lind, though, and there are positive things to point to about his sustainability.
Let's start with plate discipline. Although one can easily conjure an image of Valencia flailing at a breaking pitch in the dirt for strike three, his O-Contact% has jumped ten points from last year to 61.4%; still a bit below average, but far better than in 2016. His overall contact rate is right around league average at 77.2%, and his swinging strike rate has been a little better than league-average at 9.8%. His K-rate has dropped slightly from last year, and his walks have actually increased by two percentage points this season. Even in those ugly first 69 plate appearances, he still walked at an 8.7% clip. In all, his discipline looks to be anywhere from slightly-below average to average, and wasn't the main issue during his struggles.
What did hinder Valencia, though, was the total lack of power all through April. A woeful .081 ISO was coupled with a BABIP of just .196. He can't blame it on the baseball gods, either - his soft-hit percentage for the month was a sky-high 25.5%, a mark that FanGraphs deems "awful." His pull rate was also a season-high 47.3%. In short, when Valencia did make contact in April, it was often of the weak, rolled to the shortstop variety.
What changed come May, though? For starters, Valencia started clobbering baseballs - his hard-hit rate sat at an "excellent" mark of 39.2% for the month. Soft contact was all but eliminated at just 16.2%, and the only real concern was an obscene 25% infield fly ball rate. He cut down on pulling the ball by about ten percent, distributing those percentage points to up the middle and the other way about equally. All of this led to a May that boasts a 128 wRC+ - quite a turnaround.
Valencia has shown good pull power this year, as shown by the .483 ISO on pulled balls and FanGraphs' spray charts:
See all those red dots on the right chart? All of those are line drives. Valencia's LD% on line drives is at 20.4% - slightly above league average. His BABIP on those line drives, though, is at .576 - about thirty points below league average. What's more, in April his LD% was an even 20%. Even when he did hit the ball solidly, it found a fielder's glove annoyingly more often than usual.
Danny Valencia likely does not fit into the Mariners' long-term plans. While you could argue that he's worth keeping around next year as a bench bat, it's hard to envision him signing a multi-year deal here. Kate's excellent About Last Night piece from Wednesday highlighted Valencia's bouncing around the league, and his desire to build roots somewhere. While he seems like an easy guy to root for (that retro Sonics hat gave him a big boost in that department), I doubt that starting roots entails signing a one-year deal, the most flexible, expendable contracts in baseball.
After a horrid start that had many calling for his head, Danny Valencia has righted the ship. In fact, he has been among the team's better hitters for a month now, and while he hasn't exactly crushed lefties this season like he has historically (103 wRC+), he is posting a nearly identical mark of 104 against right-handed pitching.
Congratulations, Danny. You are not a problem.