Danny Valencia is the exception to the A’s rule. Before being traded to Oakland, the third baseman was mainly a platoon player in the majors, getting his playing time against left-handed pitching. In Oakland, where platoons are the norm, Valencia has become the rare everyday player.
The 31-year-old has accomplished this largely through his hitting. After the A’s claimed him off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays last August, Valencia batted .284 with 11 home runs and 37 RBIs in 47 games, leading manager Bob Melvin to keep writing him into the lineup, mostly in the cleanup spot.
Valencia had a slow start this season, compounded by a hamstring strain that sidelined him for 15 days. He returned to the lineup May 7 and began hitting immediately, finishing the month with eight home runs, 19 RBIs and a 1.077 on-base-plus-slugging percentage that ranked third among American League players with at least 20 games. His batting average jumped from .286 to .333.
Valencia had three more hits Wednesday in a 5-1 win over the Minnesota Twins at the Coliseum. In Oakland’s three-game sweep of a Minnesota team that drafted him, Valencia was 6 for 10 with four extra-base hits, lifting his team-high average to .346.
“That’s what he did for us all last year, and he’s carried it over,” Melvin said following Tuesday’s game. “Right now, he’s producing like a number-four hitter you would expect.”
It’s nice to have the confidence of the coaching staff, front office and these teammates in here, to want me out there every day. I’m grateful for it, and I go out there and play hard because I don’t want to let them down.
A’s third baseman Danny Valencia
One reason Valencia has seized an everyday role is his numbers against right-handed pitching. A career .243 hitter against right-handers, Valencia is batting 316 against them this season with six of his 14 extra-base hits. Melvin recently said it appears Valencia is “using the whole field” more against right-handers, giving himself a better chance of going the other way by “letting the (pitch) travel a little bit” before swinging.
Valencia offered another explanation for the improved numbers. In his platoon role, most of his starts came against left-handed starting pitchers. But he remained in the game when the other team turned to its bullpen.
“When a righty would come in a game, more often that not it’s a bullpen guy, and those guys are really good, they’re really nasty,” Valencia said. “And you see them once (in a game), and that’s it.
“Nobody’s making a living up here hitting off bullpen arms only. And I feel the body of my work against right-handed pitching for the past few years has been mainly against the bullpen guys after the left-handed starters, with a spot start (against right-handers) here and there. That’s not how it works.”
On Tuesday, Valencia faced Twins right-handed starter Tyler Duffey three times. He walked in his first at-bat, then hit a 3-1 pitch up and away for a two-run homer to right field in his second at-bat. Valencia said Duffey pitched him mostly away to that point, “so it kind of made me set my eyes out over the plate.”
In his third at-bat, he hit an RBI double.
It illustrates a cyclical aspect of hitting. Valencia’s improved numbers against right-handers are keeping him in the lineup against them – but it’s partly because he’s seeing more right-handers that the numbers are improved.
Valencia also said he is freer to be aggressive early in counts now that he has adjusted to regularly facing right-handers. Before, he said he was “consumed with having the good at-bat,” passing on some hittable pitches as a result.
“(Opponents) see the numbers against right-handed pitching when you’re platooning and they’re like, all right, we don’t fear this guy, we’re going to get ahead of him right away,” Valencia said. “I’d take that pitch and always be behind in every at-bat.
Right now, he’s producing like a number-four hitter you would expect.
A’s manager Bob Melvin, on Danny Valencia
“Sometimes, you’ve got to be aggressive, you know? You swing at a slider in the dirt looking for a fastball, so be it.”
Other aspects of Valencia as a hitter are different now. He’s worked on keeping his swing path in the strike zone longer to increase his chances of making contact. His front-leg lift, when he gathers his weight on his back leg, is something he picked up partly from Jose Bautista in Toronto. Valencia said spending two seasons with the Blue Jays “was the best thing that happened to me, to work with hitters like that, just be around hitters like that.”
In Oakland, though, Valencia is being afforded the kind of everyday role he hadn’t held since playing a career-high 154 games for Minnesota in 2011.
“It’s nice to have the confidence of the coaching staff, front office and these teammates in here, to want me out there every day,” Valencia said. “I’m grateful for it, and I go out there and play hard because I don’t want to let them down.”