Friday, August 06, 2010

Cooling down Valencia's hot bat

Danny Valencia has apparently taken full advantage of the resources around him, getting batting tips from Justin Morneau and has opened his ears to the wonders of plate discipline from Jim Thome. This tutelage has paid dividends in just his second month of his career. Like baseball’s version of King Midas, everything he swung at in July turn to gold. He recorded a hit in all but two of the 16 games he played in, finishing the month hitting .453 (24-for-53) with seven extra base hits including a grand slam off of Zack Greinke.
However, maintaining that level of output has been difficult for Valencia as of late. Since his hitting extravaganza in Baltimore and Kansas City, Valencia has slowly come back down to earth, going 6-for-31 (.194) with eight strikeouts. The reason behind this drop-off is due to opposition’s ability to target his weaknesses and avoiding his hot zones.
In his limited time at the major league level, Valencia has demonstrated some outstanding plate coverage. Whereas many unrefined hitters attempt to yank that outer-half pitch, Valencia has made solid contact, amassing a .147 well-hit average on balls away (versus the .095 league average), frequently lacing fastballs on the outer half of the zone back through the middle of the field with vigor. Likewise, he has been equally impressive on pitches up in the zone, an area notorious for inciting vacant swings and lackadaisical pop outs, and has been able to get a sizeable portion of the barrel on the ball. Valencia has produced a .204 well-hit average on pitches up (versus the .103 league average) driving many of those pitches into center field for hits.
Because of his ability to handle those pitches well, opponents are now targeting other areas of the strike zone. Using the Hit Zone chart from Inside Edge, we can see that Valencia has shown only two real soft-spots in his swing so far: middle-up and middle-in. 

Danny Valencia's Hit Zones
Danny Valencia's Hit Zones

While Orioles and Royals pitchers may have had the intentions hitting those cold spots, they routinely missed out over the plate for six straight games and Valencia revealed that he is talented enough to take advantage of those mistakes. Meanwhile, in this most recent series, the Rays pitching staff attacked those weaknesses and exploited his chase zones with total disregard for human life.
Tampa’s Wade Davis was virtually systematic in his approach, pounding the fastball at that middle-in locale then dropped the slider on him in his chase zones. In his first match-up, Davis buzzed a fastball in his middle-in cold zone for strike one then proceeded to throw two straight sliders in his chase zone to dispatch him in three pitches. During their fourth inning battle, Davis again started him with a fastball, this time in his outer-half chase zone (which Valencia wisely laid off) then came inside twice with the heat to induce a fly out to left. In their third and final encounter, Davis showed him a slider for a strike then burned a fastball in his elevated cold zone, getting Valencia to fly out to right.
Tampa Bay showed that they are an astute team that is capable of not only being aware of Valencia’s weaknesses but also have the talent to execute. This description is not too far off from how James Niemann handled him as well on Tuesday night. Ditto for rookie Jeremy Hellickson on Monday too.
When advanced scouts start to see something that a hitter will crush, like Valencia and fastballs, they will report back to the club quickly. Not surprising, the amount of fastballs thrown to him went from 67.4% in June to just 49.0% in July. If they start to see a tendency or a pattern, like Valencia’s middle-in soft spot or likelihood to chase, they’ll report that too. Word spreads quickly in baseball.
With this detailed map of how to get him out waiting for him in Cleveland and Chicago, Valencia’s next lesson in his on-going development will be to learn how to adapt to the ever-changing competition.