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Danny Valencia and the Sophomore Slump Monster

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: June 10, 2011 - 2:36 PM
Anyone who has spent time on the TwinsCentric space on Fridays knows that I often provide breakdowns of either what is influencing their poor numbers - such as the case of Justin Morneau or Delmon Young – or what changes might have helped elevate their game – like in the instance of Jason Kubel or Alexi Casilla. However, in attempts to quantify what is going wrong with Danny Valencia, I got nothing.
The simplest explanation behind Valencia’s decline is that the balls that he put into play last year became hits at a meaty 34.5% rate and has now dropped to a below-average 24.6% mark. In short, more of his balls in play are being hit at the defense.
Now, a good portion of the baseball analytical society would see this and reach the conclusion that where Valencia was the recipient of a very good amount of luck in 2010 but he has the misfortunate of being extremely unlucky in 2011. Part of my offseason prediction of Valencia having a sophomore slump was based somewhat on this idea. But, like Branch Rickey who said that luck is the residual of design, I don’t necessarily believe in “luck”, there usually is something tangible driving a player’s hot streak or a cold snap.  
For instance, in that case of Justin Morneau, he was clearly pulling out on his swing which left the outer-half of the plate exposed. Teams aggressively targeted this area of the zone when he was batting and the poor mechanics resulted in the sizeable drop-off in his totals. Meanwhile Young was not hitting inside pitches as well as he did the previous year which may be linked to a glitch in his hands/timing that is elongating his swing. Likewise, Casilla’s offensive outbreak came alongside a change in his mechanics from the left-side that allowed him to incorporate his legs more and led to more hits.
As with the cases of the three above, there usually are signs that help to reach a diagnosis. Morneau stopped hitting the ball to the opposite field. Young stopped pulling the ball. Casilla kept getting hits. Nevertheless, when checking out the indicators that might offer some enlightenment to why Valencia’s numbers are down, luck is the closest thing to an answer. After reviewing the video, comparing pitch distribution, pitch type, swing tendencies and so on, I’m stumped as to offer an explanation as to why Valencia is hitting so poorly.  
There is no sudden increase in the amount of pitches swung at outside the strike zone, no prolific jump in ground balls or infield flies, and no freakish decline in line drives, spikes in strike outs or dips in walks. Mechanically, he has not changed anything in his swing that would lead one to believe it is influencing the way he hitting the ball. Yes, he has a lot of pre-swing hand movement - which isn’t necessarily encouraged - but it is the same thing he did in 2010. Pitchers haven’t changed their approach either, essentially feeding him the same distribution of pitches and in very similar locations.
In fact, the only thing truly different between the two seasons is that he is now engaged. As far as I know no one has done any sort of comprehesive sabermetric study on how wedding planning could affect a player's ability to get hits.
As I said before, I hate to boil down Valencia’s performance as the result of good “luck” or bad “luck” but that seems to be the biggest difference between 2010 and 2011. Consider the outcomes of his line drives:

Valencia’s Line Drives
 
Liner Pct.
Batting Average on Liners
2010
19%
.771
2011
20%
.568
League Average
18%
.713
(via Fangraphs.com)

As you can see, Valencia has not had much success at getting his line drives to find open spaces. Is that the influence of bad luck? Or is that the product of opposing teams figuring out how to position their defense against him better now that they have collected data on him? Perhaps it is a little of column A and a little of column B?
Either way, it is a good sign that Valencia continues to put the ball into play the right way – on a rope. History dictates that if a player continues to hit line drives, a hefty portion of those ultimately become hits. If the line drives persist, Valencia’s overall totals should improve in the near future.  

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