Astros Third Baseman Luis Valbuena Is Secretly Thriving
The Houston Astros blew a 5-2 lead last night and were tied 7-7 going into the bottom of the eighth inning after Ken Giles‘ 1-2-3 top of the inning. Jason Castro hit a double to lead off the inning and was promptly pinch ran for by Jake Marisnick, meaning that Evan Gattis would be the catcher. Because Gattis had to catch, the Astros lost the designated hitter for the rest of the game, but luckily it did not factor into the outcome.
All eyes had been on George Springer all night as he is one of the five players up for the AL Final Vote for the 2016 All-Star game. He came up with Marisnick at second base, and fouled off pitch after pitch, but struck out on a foul tip. With Marwin Gonzalez not in the lineup, Luis Valbuena came up to try to give the Astros the lead with one on and one out.
I jokingly said to my friend who went with me to the game, “you see that guy in the orange shirt in right field? I think Valbuena should give that guy a ball right now!” Of course, there were many guys wearing orange shirts but next thing I knew, there was a loud crack of the bat and all of Minute Maid Park rocked. Valbuena had hit a blast to right field to give the Astros the lead that they were barely able to hold onto.
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I am not telling you this to give props to myself for calling the blast, but instead, focus on the fact that I had the confidence that Valbuena could get the big hit in that situation. After a shaky start to the 2016 season, Valbuena has Astros’ fans trusting in him again. This is the same player who lost playing time in 2015 but regained the job in September and October when it mattered. Every game matters at this point as the Astros fight to catch up with the Texas Rangers or regain a Wild Card slot.
After an April where Valbuena went homerless while batting .183 with four RBIs, he has hit about .282 with 11 homers and 28 RBIs. Thus far this season, he has a career-best on-base plus slugging percentage of .824, higher than his career .709 OPS. He has been a late bloomer so far in his career, as he is still getting better as he gets older. It makes me think of where Jose Bautista came from, a nobody in the beginning, to one of the most feared sluggers in the game.
Valbuena has batted mostly sixth through eighth this season. However, he has found himself recently hitting second in the batting order to get a lefty between the Springer and Jose Altuve,. Valbuena has mostly only batted second when Gonzalez wasn’t in the lineup, but I like him in that spot.
A.J. Hinch has the faith that Valbuena can put the ball in play, so I would like to see him hit second more often. TLast night was a perfect example of why it’s better to have him there versus Gonzalez, and he has the ability to change the game with one swing of the bat. With this being said, I don’t see the Astros looking for an upgrade at third base outside the organization. In other words, don’t look for a trade.
The Astros do have someone at Triple-A knocking on the door a little earlier than expected. Of course, this player is Alex Bregman, who is tearing up Triple-A pitching as he had in Double-A. He is playing so well, that he could force the Astros to promote him before the season is over. But, is Valbuena blocking Bregman at this point?
When Bregman is ready, the Astros will promote him and make him the everyday third baseman. Valbuena will most likely move over to first base, depending on how well A.J. Reed hits before that point. In eight games with the Fresno Grizzlies, Bregman is hitting .400 with seven extra-base hits, (three doubles and four homers).
Valbuena was initially thought of as a stopgap till Colin Moran or J.D. Davis was ready, but he could cement his place on this team in the future if he continues to swing a hot stick in 2016. We need success from players like Valbuena to continue winning, so I will continue to have faith in him in the clutch situations.
***Stats from Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference***