Houston Astros: The Luis Valbuena Approach

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Luis Valbuena, the Houston Astros third baseman, and part-time first baseman had a fascinating 2015 season.

At first glance, Luis Valbuena was one of the key cogs of the Houston Astros lineup, especially in the first half of the season. After all, he did go on a terrific stretch when he hit 19 home runs in his first 77 games of the season. His contribution early on helped take the pressure off a lineup that sputtered at times and didn’t have Carlos Correa until early June. Outside of Jose Altuve, Valbuena should be considered one of the offensive MVP’s to the team until July.

Then from July to the end of the season, Valbuena’s power numbers just fell off a cliff. That development in of itself was not terribly surprising when taken into consideration the history of the former Indian, Mariner, and Cub, who has never been known as a very inconsistent hitter. In fact, within the friendly confines of Wrigley Field in 2014, Valbuena hit just 16 home runs in 478 at-bats. Until this past season, he didn’t maintain an ISO of more than .186 in any of his other major league seasons that consisted of at least 90 or more games.

Don’t forget that he did most of his damage for the Astros in the first half in only 286 at-bats. But what is, even more, surprising that in a course of 148 at-bats in the second half, Valbuena appeared to become a more efficient hitter. Sure, the power numbers drop (6 HR, .182 ISO in the second half), but the efficiency seem to rebound (124 wRC+).

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Just to preface, this is pure speculation on my part. And with that said, when reviewing the numbers, it appears that Valbuena adopted a more aggressive approach at the plate in 2015. The increase in his Z-Swing % and O-Swing %, up by 2.7% & 3.7% respectively in 2015, and swinging strike percentage seem to support a change of approach at the plate. In fact, his swinging strike percentage climbed a full percentage point to 10.6% in 2015 while receiving 44 fewer at-bats compared to the previous season. In essence, the evidence seems to indicate that Valbuena simply aimed to be less selective about which pitches to attack in and out of the zone during his at-bats sequence. In turn, this approach help explains the (slight) increase in strikeouts and drop in walks.

This apparently modified approach also helps support Valbuena’s increased home run production as he seemingly developed a knack of hitting dingers off pitchers who threw him a healthy dose of four-seam fastballs in 2015:

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball
Courtesy of Brooks Baseball /

And compare that to the 2014 season:

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball
Courtesy of Brooks Baseball /

As one can see, Valbuena feasted on four-seam fastballs, especially on the edges in the middle part of the zone. That was something he couldn’t take advantage of in 2014. Of course, you have to account for the difference in pitching between leagues and playing half of your games in Chicago one year followed by Houston the next.

However, this new approach may have been a double edge sword during the second half of last season as his power numbers took a plunge. Maybe other team’s scouting departments instructed their pitching staffs how to pitch at Valbuena after seeing him a few times. But at the same it can also be argued that this approach could have increased his effectiveness at the plate and turned him into a more efficient hitter. Nothing concrete to prove that, but it is interesting speculation.

So what can we expect from the Astros incumbent third baseman heading into the 2016 season? Is he the power hitter that we all became enamored with till July, or is he the Valbuena that didn’t provide such a notable impact on the lineup?

Per Fangraphs Steamer projections, Valbuena is projected figures turn out to be a somewhat mix bag of past results. His projected wRC+ of 102 and wOBA of .321 is not too far off from his 2015 actual numbers. However, he is expected to post similar home run and RBI totals compared to his 2014 season with the Cubs. And if you go based on projections, which are finicky, then it appears that his 2015 power output may turn out to be a career-best.

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This doesn’t mean that he won’t be a valuable player in the Astros eyes. He just received a reasonable raise for the 2016 season that bumps his salary to $6.125 million and provides a quality glove at the hot corner. Then there is the versatility at first base which could come in handy if Jon Singleton and A.J. Reed struggle early on next season. And his offense for a player who isn’t expected to carry the load of the offense should be adequate for him to be a serviceable hitter in the fifth, sixth, or seventh spot in the lineup.

Regardless of his performance in 2016, however, Valbuena isn’t projected to be the long-term solution at third base. Colin Moran, Tyler White, Matt DuffyAlex Bregman, or even Correa, are projected to be the main options for third base in the future. But the Astros have needed every bit of Valbuena’s contribution for the rebuild project to be seemingly finished earlier than expected.

Next: Houston Astros: The Missing Hole in the Roster

He helped provide the team with a viable hitter at a position that has been a black hole in recent memory. And for what the Astros are trying to accomplish, there is nothing wrong with that kind of result.

**Statistics are provided by Fangraphs**

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