Despite extremely low ownership rates (5% Yahoo, 3.5% ESPN, 14% CBS), Luis Valbuena has performed well enough so far this season to make himself mixed-league relevant. The 28-year-old currently owns a .289/.390/.461 slash line through 61 games, and is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s fantasy-eligible at both second base and third base, yet fantasy owners would rather own, for example, Kelly Johnson (24% Yahoo, 9% ESPN, 19% CBS), who is hitting .226/.299/.398 by comparison.
Maybe this is a product of the fact that Valbuena has never been good before. After all, even with his 210 plate-appearance sample from this season, he’s still just a .230/.313/.365 career hitter, with 33 homers and five steals in 1,710 PA. That doesn’t sound like a fantasy-relevant player to me. So what’s changed, and how sustainable is it?
The first piece of the puzzle is Valbuena’s .369 batting average on balls in play, which might lead one to think he’s simply getting lucky, especially since his career BABIP sits at .272. However, that .369 BABIP isn’t the product of luck, it’s the product of a 27.3% line-drive rate, the seventh-best in all of baseball. Just take a look at the following chart, thanks to the fine people at Brooks Baseball:
Regardless of pitch type, if he makes contact, he’s making hard contact. However, once you do take a look at pitch types, you see another part of Valbuena’s sudden transformation from a sub-replacement level hitter into a guy with an .852 OPS. Here is a chart of Valbuena’s results by pitch type from 2013:
…and here are his results from 2014:
Well, it sure looks like somebody figured out how to hit fastballs. Let’s take a look at some heat maps to get to the bottom of this, shall we? Pitchers have always attacked Valbuena with fastballs in the lower-outside part of the strike zone, or off the plate outside. Here’s the location map for the fastballs he’s seen in 2014 (I thought about including his career location map as well, but it looks almost exactly the same as this year’s):
Now, let’s compare that with his heat map against fastballs in 2014:
Valbuena has suddenly started hitting fastballs in the exact spot where pitchers have always attacked him with fastballs. It’s admittedly not a large sample, but it is very encouraging data nonetheless. Furthermore, he’s just kept heating up as the season has gone on, and has now sustained an OPS above .900 for two straight months after a slow start in April:
- April (68 PA) – .218/.368/.327
- May (90 PA) – .295/.389/.513
- June (51 PA) – .362/.412/.532
Is Valbuena going to sustain a .369 BABIP all season? Of course not, but as long as he’s hitting a high rate of line drives, he’s going to continue to have mixed-league fantasy value. He’s been performing like a top-12 fantasy second baseman for the last two months, it’s about time we all start taking him a bit more seriously.
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