Monday, July 11, 2016

On Luis Valbuena

As Luis Valbuena has gone, so have gone the Astros. As preseason favorites least make the playoffs Valbuena mimicked the Astros' success, or lack thereof. Valbuena bottomed out on May 3, after yet another 0-fer - his 6th hitless game in a row, to drop his line to .175/.288/.238. After 74 plate appearances, admittedly a small sample size, he had a .526 OPS with one more hit (11) than he had walks (10). 

This wasn't exactly news. If you take his entire 2015 season through May 3, 2016 (567 PAs - right about a full season) he hit .217/.307/.412, "good enough" for a 97 wRC+, or a slightly below average Major League player.

But now the oft-maligned (by me, anyway; and you, probably) third baseman is in the midst of a career year. His .269/.364/.474 slash line on the season would all stand as career highs - and that's including his early struggles. His .838 OPS is 90 points higher than his 2015 season that saw him knock out 43 extra-base hits (he's at 28 XBH right now). 

From May 4 up to right now (the 2016 All-Star Break) - a span of 223 plate appearances - Valbuena is hitting .300/.389/.553 with 24 extra-base hits, a .253 ISO, 149 wRC+ on a .352 BABIP. We'll break it down more in the following paragraphs, but that BABIP is a glaring difference over his previous 13 months of baseball. From 2015 to May 3, 2016 Valbuena struggled or unluckied himself into a .239 BABIP. 

So okay. Valbuena was bad and now he's good. Great, even. That .942 OPS since May 4 ranks 9th in all of baseball (note: I had to do some rudimentary math to get to that ranking, so assume that if it's not "9th" then it's "very high.")

What happened? Looking at Brooks Baseball, he's generating average power across the board in 2016. He has a steady-to-patient approach and will pull the ball on fastballs and offspeed pitches, but will take breaking pitches all over the field. There's nothing that stands out here on the dashboard. 

But if we look at how he's performed against specific pitch types, we see some major differences since May 4, 2016 compared to 2015-May 3, 2016. So let's compare:

Four-seam fastball, 2015-5/3/2016: .210 AVG, .534 SLG, .183 BABIP. He had 11 singles and 14 home runs in this span.
Four-seam fastball, 5/4-7/10/2016: .243 AVG, .529 SLG, .262 BABIP. 

Sinker: 2015-May 3: .239 AVG, .380 SLG, .250 BABIP. 15 singles, 7 XBH. 
Sinker: May 4-ASG: .400 AVG, .743 SLG, .407 BABIP. 8 singles, 6 XBH.

Changeup: 2015-May 3: .182 AVG, .273 SLG, .231 BABIP, 3 XBH
Changeup: May 4-ASG: .292 AVG, .417 SLG, .286 BABIP, 7 XBH

Cutter: 2015-May 3: .205 AVG, .436 SLG, .222 BABIP
Cutter: May 4-ASG: .571 AVG, 1.071 SLG, .636 BABIP.

So that's striking, yeah? Dude still can't hit a curve, and I don't know why pitchers don't just throw him a curve all the time. 

Curve: 2015-May 3: .192 AVG, .212 SLG, .303 BABIP.
Curve: May 4-ASG: .143 AVG, .214 SLG, .222 BABIP.

Pitchers seem to be figuring this out. From Opening Day 2015 through May 3, 2016 he saw 295 curveballs. From May 4 to today he's already seen 101 curves. 

So what do we take away from this? Has a 30-year old baseball player finally figured it out - was 2600+ MLB plate appearances all it took to get Valbuena on track? Did the Astros win the Dexter Fowler trade? Is this a case of a player who was extremely "unlucky" now finally regressing to the mean? 


Do you trade Valbuena thinking that - for 2540 career plate appearances entering this year, he's a .228/.312/.386 hitter - and he's more of a .700 OPS guy than he is a .942 OPS guy. Because if you convince another team he's a .942 OPS guy and you sell at Valbuena's absolute height to pave the way for Bregman to man 3B, then you can maybe get some pitching or *something.*


You're in the middle of a race in which the division could actually be in play. Would you actually trade your hottest player not named in the middle of a magical run in which 2016 Valbuena has actually been great for twice as long as he was terrible? A guy who has mirrored your overall team's success? 

Wait: You don't believe me? Let's look at Astros OPS (with 100 PAs) since May 4:
Valbuena: .942
Altuve: .937
Springer: .826
Correa: .817
Castro: .750
Marwin: .717
Gattis: .713
Rasmus: .662
Gomez: .636
Marisnick: .531

How do you trade that? Please feel free to weigh in and let us know what you think. I, for one, am glad I'm not The Law Offices of Luhnow, Mejdal, and Goldstein.