Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Perplexing Luis Valbuena

When the Indians traded outfielder Franklyn Gutierrez to the Mariners for Luis Valbuena, the hope was that they were acquiring a player who could potentially lock down the right side of their double play combination for years to come. Valbuena was a player who has already shown himself to be capable of hitting in the upper levels of the minor leagues, posting a .864 OPS in AA and a .756 OPS in AAA in his split 2008 season with the Mariners.




Year
Age
Level
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
ISO
BABIP
BB%
K%
200822AA.304.381.483.864.179.3279.5%15.4%
200822AAA.302.383.373.756.071.34811.2%15.1%

It was that solid production that had the Indians front office intrigued. As you can see both the strikeout rate and walk rate - two areas I emphasize heavily - looked solid, especially his walk rate, which is critical for middle infielders who don't project to hit for much power. It allows you to project for the inevitable toll BABIP regression takes on a players average as they advance to the Majors and still determine whether they can post solid OBPs or not. In Valbuena's case, that checked out. Nor were there any concerns about his age - as a 22 year old splitting time between AA and AAA, he was on a very good, even aggressive developmental track and more than holding his own. Furthermore, his power in AA provided promise in that department.As was, I would've projected him as a .270/.350/.400 type of hitter (maybe a bit more) through his prime years.


After the trade, the Indians wisely decided to have him repeat AAA since he had only 246 plate appearances there to date. The Indians of course had no reason to rush Valbuena, the season was almost certain to be a lost cause and starting a promising young players arbitration clock earlier than necessary made little sense. After just 95 plate appearances - and a sparkling .975 OPS - the Indians decided it was time to give Valbuena his shot.

For his part, Valbuena didn't completely blow it, which is impressive for someone who is just 23 and getting his first taste of Major League action. While it certainly wasn't an ideal start, he posted a .250/.298/.416 line with a startling 10 home runs in just 398 plate appearances. The OBP was frighteningly low and his walk rate had taken a walk off a cliff, from 10.8% for his Minor League career to just 6.5%. Also concerning was an increase in his strikeout rate. The combined 13 home runs he hit between AAA and the Majors however, was a career high and his .250 average, given a neutral .296 BABIP was promising, especially given his 22% line drive rate.


Year
Age
Level
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
ISO
BABIP
BB%
K%
LD%
200923AAA.321.436.538.975.218.35516.8%16.7%N/A
200923MLB.250.298.416.714.166.3966.5%22.6%22.2%

Entering the 2010 season, the hope was obviously that Valbuena would take yet another step forward, building off the successes he enjoyed in 2009, and solidify himself as the long-term answer at second base that the front office believed he could be. They handed him the opening day job and hoped he could run with it. He did not. Instead, 2010 would largely be a lost season for Valbuena where he struggled with injuries and saw his production plummet before being sent down to AAA. He would eventually return but his .243 wOBA was amongst the worst marks of the past decade for a player with at least 300 plate appearances.

Year
Age
Level
AVG
OBP
SLG
OPS
ISO
BABIP
BB%
K%
LD%
201024AAA.313.427.6041.031.292.34316.0%21.9%N/A
201024MLB.193.273.258.531.065.2389.0%22.2%17.9%

Thankfully, there are silver linings here. First and foremost, his BABIP was an outrageously low .238 and his walk rate of 9.0% was far closer to his minor league average, which portends good things for both his AVG as well as his OBP. We can also take some solace in the fact that he ripped AAA pitchers during his stint in the minors, slugging six home runs in a mere 119 plate appearances.

Now two seasons in Valbuena has displayed some good things and some bad things. We've seen some improvement in his walk rate, but his strikeout rate has risen into the low 20s and hasn't come down. We saw some power the first year, but it disappeared. His line drive rates have been solid/good but his ground ball rate in 2010 was so high (46.7%!!!) that it's going to be really hard for him to show the power he did in 2009.

What do we have? A young player trying to find his way. Valbuena has the tools to succeed offensively in the Majors. He's shown us he can hit for power. He's shown us he knows how to take a walk, and he's shown us that he can still probably hit .270 if he can cut down on the strikeouts and put the ball in play more often.

2011 is going to be a very important year for Valbuena - not necessarily make or break - because if Valbuena doesn't get off to a solid start there are players behind him at AAA who will be ready to start pushing for their own chance. And if he puts the Indians in that position, they'll have to explore those alternatives.

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