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TwinsCentric: 99 problems but a hitch ain't one?

Posted by: Parker Hageman Updated: February 3, 2012 - 12:05 AM

 

According to Joe Christensen, Danny Valencia has been working hard all offseason at improving his overall game. In addition to trying to repair his shoddy defense, he has used video to help him make a few changes to his offensive approach:

 

“Valencia, 27, also studied video of his at-bats and decided to make a subtle change with his hands. Last year, he would trap his hands toward his body, forcing a longer loop before his swing. Now, he is bringing his hands straight back, giving him a straighter path to the ball.

Here’s a look at what Valencia has seen:

 

 

Focus on his hands. Notice that during his loading process, he drops his hands while bring the bat inside then brings his hands back up to his launch position. This action is what causes the “longer loop” as Christensen describes it.

Compare Valencia’s loading process to that of fellow right-hander and former teammate Michael Cuddyer:

 

 

Rather than moving his hands towards his body, Cuddyer simply shifts his set back to the launch position, maintaining the same linear plane and creating the “straighter path to the ball.”

From the side view, this will better highlight Valencia’s subtle hitch in comparison to how level someone like Cuddyer keeps his hands: 

 

 

 

 

 

What is interesting about this is that throughout his career, Valencia has had this hitch in his swing – at least it was a trait he featured dating back to at least 2008 in the Arizona Fall League. It is clear that he has a hitch but this approach worked well for him during his time in AA (.287/.353/.483 in 539 plate appearances), AAA (.289/.322/.421 in 484 plate appearances) and at the major league level last year (.311/.351/.448 in 322 plate appearances). Of course, when you come off a season like Valencia did in 2011, obviously the performance demands some answers.

Did his hitch derail his season? Were big league pitchers better at exploiting this than their minor league counterparts?

Delving into his batted ball numbers, you see almost mirror images of his batted ball output. The difference lies in the quality of ball put into play (a much higher well-hit average in 2010) which likely led to the large batting average on balls in play discrepancy:

 

LD%

GB%

FB%

IF/FB%

Well-Hit Avg

BABIP

2010

18.8%

43.0%

38.3%

11.2%

.264

.345

2011

17.8%

45.9%

36.3%

14.8%

.222

.275

(via Fangraphs.com & myInsideEdge.com)

Plate discipline-wise, the story remained the same as well. There was a minor growth in a tendency to expand the strike zone and his contact/strikeout rate both made movement in the wrong direction but none of those indicators are suggestive of someone struggling through a season:

 

Out of Zone%

Contact%

Swinging Strike%

2010

25.3%

82.7%

6.9%

2011

27.6%

79.5%

8.6%

(via Fangraphs.com & myInsideEdge.com)

So, there was not a spike in ground balls or a great inflation in fly balls that would lead someone to believe opponents were more successful at keeping him off-balance in 2011. Same goes for his plate discipline numbers. What’s more is that with the exception of a slight shift in more hard-velocity pitches thrown to him (fastballs, sliders) over off-speed stuff (change-ups, curves), Valencia saw almost the same palate of pitches.

Nevertheless, it is hard to ignore how quickly his hit rate dropped between the two years and how his ability to handle right-handed pitching disappeared as he went from hitting .280/.303/.410 against them in 2010 to .252/.303/.352 in 2011. Was it because of his longer swing? Probably not. Will adjusting it help? It’s very possible.

Without anyone in the system pressing him at third, the Twins went out an acquired a small insurance policy in Sean Burroughs. Burroughs, who had a solid defensive reputation and a decent minor league track record, may be the safety net for Valencia in 2012 – or a left-handed platoon option if Valencia cannot solve right-handers.

Based on his prior successful output with the hitch (or longer loop in his swing) combined with the batted ball and plate discipline data, it is difficult to pinpoint his 2011 woes on that part of his swing so changing that aspect is not a magic bullet for him to rebound in 2012. Still, if he’s able to adapt to the new approach, this should give him a quicker swing (perhaps covering the inside portion of the plate where he’s had some struggles). And, if he maintains a similar line drive rate in 2012, it would not be unexpected to see his BABIP increase and with it, his overall numbers too. 

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