Luis Valbuena: Bueno, or No?

This is an article about Luis Valbuena. What follows might be rendered moot if Kris Bryant wins the Cubs’ third base job out of spring training next year. Even if Bryant doesn’t do so, he’s probably not long for Triple-A ball, and should be up in the big leagues for good by midseason. So, unless something else happens — I suppose there’s an outside shot that Javier Baez tanks in spring training and Valbuena takes over at second base while Baez gets demoted for further seasoning — Valbuena might not have a regular role with the Cubs for much longer. It’s very possible, even probable.

But, despite other caveats, Valbuena has his merits as a hitter, and he’ll be eligible at second base and third base in almost all fantasy formats going into 2015, so let’s discuss—for the enjoyment of said.

By wOBA (.342) and wRC+ (116), Valbuena’s 2014 ranked fourth among qualified second basemen, and seventh among qualified third basemen. These numbers weren’t propped up by an insane BABIP (his .294 mark was lower than league average) or HR/FB (his 9.2% was right around league average). That’s an encouraging start, but stats like wOBA and wRC+ hardly come into play in fantasy leagues, and Valbuena’s 2014 looks mediocre at best when assessed by the traditional 5×5 stats. Here’s where he ranked among qualified third basemen in those categories:

Category AVG HR R RBI SB
3B Rank 21 7(t) 11 21 19(t)

Here, only his relative home run total is worth noting, and it’s not notable enough to make up for lackluster production in other stats. Part of that is due to the fact that the Cubs as a team hit pretty poorly in 2014, ranking 13th in the National League in OBP and 12th in runs scored. Valbuena spent the vast majority of his time in the number four or five spots in the lineup, so a lack of RBI was not completely his fault. The 2015 Cubs are likely to be an improved team, but to what extent Valbuena will be a part of that team remains a concern.

One thing that does stand out about Valbuena’s overall performance is his rate of extra base hits. Among qualified hitters in 2014, Valbuena’s 9.69% XBH/PA (53 XBH / 547 PAs) ranked 20th, tying him with Yasiel Puig and placing him hot on the heels of Michael Brantley (9.91%). The only middle-infield qualified player that ranked ahead of Valbuena by this ratio was Josh Harrison. By raw XBH totals, Anthony Rendon, Ian Kinsler, Jhonny Peralta, Harrison, Jose Altuve, and Brian Dozier were the only middle infielders to out-XBH Valbuena. All of them had more PAs than Valbuena, and all but Harrison and Peralta had at least 136 more PAs. In points leagues, this can make a difference, especially since, in those leagues, this production is not being dragged down by his batting average. (Here’s the entire XBH leaderboard.)

One of the aforementioned “other caveats” is that Valbuena had extreme platoon splits in 2014. He’s always been pretty bad against lefties, but 2014 was the first year that he was actually really good against righties. In 94 PAs against left-handers in 2014 he posted a .282 wOBA, compared to a .355 mark in 453 PAs against righties.

However, because Valbuena—provided he has a pretty regular role with the Cubs or some other team in 2015—is only going to be valuable in certain types of fantasy leagues anyway, I see his platoon splits as something working in his favor in those leagues because his overall numbers are going to be diminished a bit and he’s not a high profile player. If you’re in a points league with daily lineups and a deep-ish bench, Valbuena could prove to be a nice value indeed. This where his multi-position eligibility comes into play, too. In ottoneu leagues, for example, the benches are deep and since you can rotate him into the 2B/3B/MI/U positions against RHP, he provides a lot of flexibility when one of your regulars has no game, is injured for a spell, or is up against a tougher matchup.

In 453 PAs versus righties, Valbuena put up the equivalent of 582.8 points in ottoneu points leagues (FanGraphs points style). That’s a Pts/PA of 1.29, which places him in the midst more palatable names like Josh Donaldson, Neil Walker, Matt Holliday, Carlos Santana, and George Springer. (I say “the equivalent of 582.8 points” because even if you had started Valbuena only on days when he was slated to face a right-handed starter, he would still have faced some left-handed relievers, which would slightly mitigate the points you actually got out of him.)

So, what did he do to improve against righties? Should we expect this level of performance to continue? I’m no expert on hit mechanics, but there appears to be a difference in his swing that could help explain his the increase in his rate of line drives, which was a low, low 14.9% versus right-handers in 2013 but up to 19.7% in 2014. Compare the following two swings: the first of produces a home run in September 2013; the second is also a homer, but from August 2014.

These swings are representative of other clips that I compared from 2013 and 2014. In 2013, Valbuena seemed to have a downward swing with a pretty high finish. In 2014, his swing is much more level with a more controlled finish. So, Valbuena still got his homers in 2014, but he also increased his rate of doubles and triples.

Valbuena swung more in 2014 than his previous two seasons, and made less contact. But: he increased his LD% on every pitch type versus right handers. Also but: swinging more didn’t have that great of an effect on his discipline, which has ranged from decent to very good throughout his career. His 11.9% walk rate was down from the 13.6% that he posted in 2013, but the plate discipline is still there, and includes a higher ceiling than what he did in 2014.

Also also but: Valbuena’s extra swings this year were not without design. His swings against righties are starting to be concentrated in the horizontal-center swath of zones, which just might maximize the effects of his new, more level swing. Consider:

Zone profiles for Luis Valbuena’s swings on all pitches from RHP in 2013 (left) and 2014 (right).

Zone profiles for Luis Valbuena’s ISO on all pitches from RHP in 2013 (left) and 2014 (right).

What he lost in power on pitches up and in, he more than made up for on pitches belt high. He whiffed more often when swinging on those pitches, but when he made contact, the results were of a higher quality.

If Valbuena changed his swing, and his swing resulted in more line drives and thus more extra base hits, there’s not much reason to think he couldn’t post a similar line in 2015, given 450-plus PAs against righties again. If he continues to refine his his approach and gets back to being a bit more selective at the plate, he might even make minor improvements. I wouldn’t expect over 20 homers, but 50-plus XBH and a top-20 BB% is probable.

Luis Valbuena is probably not going to be in anyone’s top 10 rankings as a second baseman or a third baseman going into 2015. Given significant questions about his role and playing time, his platoon splits, and his lack of 5×5 production, that makes sense. But in daily points leagues with deeper benches—i.e. leagues wherein platoon players can make a difference—I think that he could be a sneaky good pick for depth and streaming purposes. Platoon him diligently and reap the rewards.

We hoped you liked reading Luis Valbuena: Bueno, or No? by Robert J. Baumann!

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Trey Baughn

Appreciate you digging deep for write ups on guys like Valbuena. Used him during the stretch run last year in Ottoneu after some injuries. Nice platoon bat.