Friday, July 8, 2011

Indians Recall Luis Valbuena, Demote Zach McAllister

When the Indians promoted Zach McAllister we knew ahead of time that the move would be for only one day, at which point the team would option McAllister back to AAA and recall an infielder. What we didn't know was which infielder it would be. Jason Donald, who opened the season with the big-league club before getting injured was one option, the other was former second baseman Luis Valbuena.

As I wrote about earlier today the 26 year old Valbuena has absolutely been on fire this season, posting an OPS of .896 with 12 home runs at AAA Columbus. This of course comes as little surprise to Indians fans who have seen him do this before. Valbuena has spend parts of three seasons in AAA with the Indians, and during his time in Columbus, the .896 mark he's managed this year stands as his WORST performance yet.

To put it simply, he's just too good for that league.

What Valbuena hasn't been able to do in his 762 MLB plate appearances however, is show that he can translate that success to the Major Leagues. While his MiLB numbers have been inflated by BABIP numbers that couldn't possibly translate to the Major Leagues (as is so often the case), Valbuena has always shown the peripherals to suggest he could translate into a capable MLB regular. His career AAA slash line of .308/.394/.481 with a BABIP of .345 and an ISO of .172 suggest a neutralized line of .263/.349/.435. 

Even accounting for MLB regression, that should still project to a .250/.330/.420 MLB bat - and a .750 OPS out of a second baseman or shortstop like Valbuena would be well above the league averages for either position.

So why has he failed?

Well, so far we've seen some of the trend lines you expect to see from a Minor Leaguer making the transition to the Majors. After posting a strikeout rate of 18.7% in AAA, that number has risen to 22.4% in the Majors, while his AAA walk rate of 12.1* has fallen to 7.6% in the Majors. In addition, it would seem that those decreases in contact and selectivity have effected his power, as his .172 MiLB ISO stands at just .112 in the Majors. A BABIP of just .274 hasn't helped matters either.

In 2010 the Indians did see a slight uptick in Valbuena's walk rate to 9%, but he was really hurt by an outrageously unlucky .238 BABIP, and a near total collapse in the power department, which is where he's usually generated most of his offensive value.

Valbuena has proven to be one of those annoyingly talented players. His raw skills are pretty undeniable, he's a a plus athlete but that hasn't necessarily helped him be a good defender, and his strong hitting skills so far haven't translated in the Majors.

At 26 and in his final season with an option left, the Indians are in a tough spot. You'd hate to bury the young man at AAA, then lose him to waivers, or be forced to trade him for less than full when 2012 rolls around. At the same time you can't really afford to play him regularly in the middle of a division leading season unless you're certain he can help your ballclub.

The best case scenario would obviously be for Valbuena to take the call up and whatever playing time he receives and run with it. That'd provide the team with another strong option down the line, or a valuable trade commodity at the deadline, or during the upcoming off season. How it all turns out however will rest on the shoulders of Valbuena himself. He has all the talent in the world, he needs to show the Indians or another team that they should take another chance on it.

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