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Let’s Talk About Danny Valencia

Luke and Anders get together to discuss the recent success of the Mariners’ first baseman

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros
Look how happy he is!
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

Danny Valencia has been on a tear lately. Offensively and defensively, he’s proving his doubters wrong one game at a time. Luke and I, your resident Valencia supporters from Day One, got together to break down the first baseman’s season. Below is a transcription of that chat. Away we go!

Anders Jorstad: Well, Luke. They finally did it. The Mariners actually have themselves a half-decent first baseman. It sure took some time for him to show it, but he's back to his old self. This is what I said about Valencia in my 40 in 40 profile back in January:

For starters, he’s very offensively sound. Valencia’s wRC+ in 2016 was equal to the likes of Jose Abreu, Jackie Bradley Jr., Buster Posey, and Kole Calhoun. He’s certainly no superstar with the bat, but the ability to be an average-to-slightly-above hitter on a consistent basis is very valuable.

Luke Mounger: You’re right, Anders. It did take some time. His 54 wRC+ in April definitely discouraged my preseason expectations; however, since then he’s been as reliable as anyone could have imagined.

His dependability has been particularly important this season. With players like Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, and Robinson Cano spending time on the disabled list, the Mariners have needed to look elsewhere for production.

After his rough April, he’s posted the fourth highest wRC+ on the team since the beginning of May. One player ahead of him on that list is Segura, who missed time with an injury during that stretch. Another ahead of him is Mike Zunino, who spent a few weeks in AAA in May. With that in mind, Valencia has really helped provide stability for a lineup that’s hit it’s share of adversity along the way.

AJ: That's pretty crazy, honestly. Since May 1st, he's sporting a 129 wRC+, which sandwiches him right between Corey Seager and Corey Dickerson, a couple of All-Stars this year. All of this for the price of Paul Blackburn (who's actually doing decently with the A's this year!). However, in this year of the home run, he's only on pace for a little under 20 on the year. That's certainly not ideal for a first baseman. But is the lack of power concerning?

LM: It’s certainly something to consider. Continuing to analyze the time period from May 1st until now, his .182 ISO is 25th among first basemen. And although his 129 wRC+ during that window is impressive, it still ranks just 16th among first basemen. He’s proven he can hit for contact, running a .301 batting average over his 262 plate appearances, so you’d have to point at his power for limiting his offensive production, even during a hot stretch. Launching long balls has never really been part of his M.O. He’s never eclipsed 20 home runs and has a career .160 ISO. So while he’s been a vital part of the Mariners lineup over the course of the season, he doesn’t fit the bill of a 30 homer slugger you throw in the middle of your lineup. Instead, he seems pretty cut out for the second and sixth spots in the lineup that he’s been occupying lately.

AJ: Right, and that's always been a common criticism of the Mariners. They haven't had an individual first baseman knock out even 25 home runs since Russell Branyan did in 2009. That being said, there are more ways to be productive offensively than to hit for power, but the common thought is that first base is an easy place to put a hulking slugger without worrying about the negatives he provides on defense. They had some success with that last year by splitting first base into a platoon, as Adam Lind and Dae-Ho Lee combined to hit 34 dingers. But it's a pretty major waste of a roster spot to have two first basemen. So Danny has been good in that sense. As advertised, he's been awesome against lefties (159 wRC+) and serviceable against righties (95 wRC+). The M's haven't needed to platoon him as a result.

LM: The fact he’s been around league average against righties has been very important for the Mariners. Coming into this year, Danny had finished two consecutive seasons with a wRC+ north of 100 against righties, indicating he had adjusted enough to right handed pitching to be productive. This allowed the Mariners to carry an eighth member of the bullpen for the majority of the season without having to carry Dan Vogelbach as Valencia’s platoon partner at first.

AJ: And that's allowed Vogelbach to develop more in Tacoma without the pressure to perform in Seattle. But one thing that's notable is that Valencia isn't really a first baseman. In fact, this is the first year that he's played a majority of his innings at the position. Other organizations have tried him out at third base or a corner outfield spot, where his bat profiles better but where his glove isn't up to par. Now the M's have moved him over to first for the long haul, and they've unexpectedly unlocked a defensive wizard. That's definitely not what anyone thought would happen. Here's what Jeff Sullivan said when the M's first acquired Valencia:

"The drawbacks are that Valencia won’t be a defensive plus at first base or in the corner outfield, but he certainly fits a hole on the roster, and his 2017 will be affordable."

LM: Yes, Valencia’s defensive prowess has been a surprise. A pleasant one at that. To steal your stat, his four DRS slots him as the second best defensive first baseman in the AL. The Mariners haven’t had a first baseman with four DRS since Casey Kotchman in 2010. Looking at his defensive metrics earlier in his career, his success at first base is starting to make a lot of sense to me. Prior to Seattle, he had spent the vast majority of his career at third base, where he posted a career -6.7 UZR/150. His glove was actually graded out favorably, with 7.9 ErrR (error runs) in nearly 4000 career innings. His defensive value was hurt, however, by his -27.6 career RngR (range runs) in the hot corner. Switching to first puts range at less of a premium, and favors those who can flash some leather.

AJ: He's basically what the M's were going for in 2010 when they acquired Kotchman, except he's got a very good bat. There's also this, re: his defense:

Like we said, nobody was expecting this from him defensively. But it's been a welcome sight.

LM: I’m curious about Valencia’s next career move. At 32 years old, he’s been a sort of journeyman, playing for six organizations in eight years in the bigs. He’s an unrestricted free agent after this season. Will the Mariners offer him a long term home? How much do you think the end of this season factors into their decision?

AJ: It’s interesting. In terms of profile, the Mariners basically drafted his perfect successor in Evan White. A defense-first player with a bat that doesn’t hold the traditional power profile but still fits very well in most lineups. Although I think White is a far superior athlete and the M’s are probably hoping his offensive ceiling is a little bit higher.

Anyway, I can definitely see the team going year-to-year with Valencia from here on out. Like you said, this is a dude who is on his seventh organization in eight years. He was known for his personality issues before he came to Seattle. He might attract some attention as a free agent, but nobody is going to be throwing him three-year offers. That gives the M’s a nice stopgap until Vogelbach or White is ready. I think he’ll do a fine job in that role, but I don’t see him as the kind of guy who will be here beyond 2019.

If the team crashes and burns, or has a sudden organizational shift and chooses to rebuild, he’ll be gone sooner to make way for Vogelbach. Otherwise I’d say it’s a safe bet they bring him back for at least one more year. What do you think?

LM: I think his history of bouncing from team to team is interesting. You mentioned his character being a concern in the past. I remember thinking about that when the Mariners traded for him. But, after a few months in Seattle, this is the only Danny I could ever imagine:

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

That said, I think the fact he’s changed teams so often plays to the Mariners advantage with regards to signing him. He’s only had more than 500 plate appearances twice in his career. Other years, he had been between teams and between roles before solidifying a day to day role in 2016. But, to answer your question, I agree that he’ll be a Mariner in 2018. Something crazy would have to happen for that not to be true. I think the Mariners have shown enough this year for management to believe that this core is capable of winning games. If they decide they need to make a change to contend, pitching would certainly take priority before any of the position players.

AJ: The good news is, it seems like the M’s won’t have to worry about first base again in the near future. With Valencia, they have a guy who plays great defense at first and has a solid bat. He’s no star, but he can hold down the fort until they develop or acquire one. You can definitely see a team competing with a guy like him manning first.