Thursday, July 28, 2011

Who is Danny Valencia?

Valencia hits his first career home run--a Grand Slam--off Zack Greinke
Minnesota selected Danny Valencia in the 19th round of the 2006 draft out of the University of Miami.  A proud alum, Valencia was a roommate of current Indians closer Chris Perez while he was there.  Following his sophomore season, Ryan Braun left and vacated the third base job, allowing Valencia to slide over there from first base.  That season, his last in college, he lifted his team into the College World Series with a game-winning grand slam against Ole Miss.

He reported to Rookie-ball after signing in July and played both first base and third base there.  He ranked second on the Elizabethton Twins in OPS and was near the top of the Appalachian League leaderboard in average, on base percent, slugging percent, and OPS.  That was enough to get him noticed, as Aaron Gleeman ranked him #33 among Twins prospects entering the 2007 season, but, as Gleeman put it, "An experienced college hitter beating up on rookie-league competition isn't particularly rare or impressive."

Moving up one level a year, Valencia continued to produce similar results even as the competition got tougher every season.  His OPS in 2006 in Rookie league was .870; low Single-A in 2007, .874; in high Single-A in 2008, .921; and in Double-A in 2009, .855.  After those performances, Valencia had climbed to the #8 spot in Gleeman's ranking of the Twins prospects prior to the 2009 season.  He actually ranked two spots higher the year before, but his time in Triple-A in the second half of the 2009 season was not as successful and caused the drop.

He opened the 2010 season in Rochester, Minnesota's Triple-A affiliate, and didn't play appreciably better than the previous year.  His walks, which had disappeared in his stint with Rochester in 2009, resurfaced, but this time his power was nowhere to be seen.  After averaging a home run about every 30 at bats throughout his minor league career, Valencia hit zero in 185 at bats.  Nonetheless, when Michael Cuddyer went on the bereavement list in early June due to a death in the family, the Twins called on Valencia.  He played fairly consistently through his first month and held an average over .300 and an OPS close to .700.

The month of July, however, saw Valencia put together a ridiculous hot streak.  Over 53 at bats, he hit .453 and raised his season average to .384.  In one absurd 4-game stretch, he had 14 hits in 20 at bats, to go with 4 doubles, 1 home run, and 8 RBIs.  The homer was the first of his career, a particularly special one since it was a grand slam off reigning AL Cy Young award winner Zack Greinke.  Obviously he cooled off significantly, but still ended the season with a .311 average and an OPS just shy of .800 and finished third in Rookie of the Year voting.

The early hot streak had perhaps clouded Twins fans' minds, though.  While Valencia was a solid player, they irrationally thought they were getting a borderline All-Star.  Certainly the numbers he contributed during his hot streak were unrepeatable, and even his end-of-season statistics seemed a bit high given his minor league track record.  Sure enough, Valencia experienced drops across the board in his performance in 2011.  This seemed to irritate manager Ron Gardenhire more than anyone else, as Valencia unfairly made his way into Gardenhire's doghouse.  Suddenly, the hot young prospect from a season before was being thrown under the bus by his manager for every mistake he made.

Valencia is probably better than he's played to this point in the season, just as he wasn't as good as he played last season, and even that is good enough to be a low-level starting third baseman.  Just because his manager has decided that his inability to repeat his success from his rookie season is good cause to blame him for many of the Twins problems doesn't mean Twins fans should do the same.

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