Valencia showing signs of returning to form
Twins third baseman working tirelessly on offense, defense
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- After breaking out as a rookie in 2010, Twins third baseman Danny Valencia went through a sophomore slump of sorts last season.
There were some bright spots -- he hit 15 homers while leading the team in games played (154) and RBIs (72) -- but saw his batting line tumble from a .311 batting average/.351 on-base percentage/.448 slugging percentage to .246/.294/.383.
Valencia also had his fair share of struggles in the field, committing 18 errors and ranking in the bottom half among third basemen in advanced metrics such as Ultimate Zone Rating and the Fielding Bible's Plus/Minus System.
As a result, Valencia spent all offseason working hard on both his offense and his defense, and it's carried over into Spring Training.
Valencia has spent extra time on practice fields working on his swing with hitting coach Joe Vavra and Hall of Famer Rod Carew, while also taking his fair share of ground balls.
The results have been paying off, as Valencia is hitting .353 with two homers and five RBIs in six games while looking much more comfortable at third base.
"Danny has been working at it," Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. "He's been on the extra field taking extra swings, doing things in the cages. He's told himself he's going to use the whole field and drive the ball. When he starts looking around and tries to hit the ball where they ain't, [that] is when he starts to get in trouble. But when he gets the barrel out on the ball, he can drive it with anybody."
Valencia said one thing he's been trying to get better at is driving the ball with power to right field, as he hit just .179 with three doubles and no homers on balls hit to the opposite field last year. This spring, he already has two doubles to right.
"I feel like I'm doing well and at my best when I'm using right field," Valencia said. "I'm a natural right-field hitter and it's something I've been my whole life. So it's something in Spring Training I've really emphasized."
But while Valencia is trying to improve his all-around approach with ability to use the whole field, he's also not shying away from turning on the ball, either.
Both of his homers this spring went to left field, and his raw power remains one of his best tools, as evidenced by his 15 homers last year and the shows he puts on during batting practice.
"We've been working on staying through the ball," Valencia said. "Working on driving the ball to the big part of the park and getting some good backspin on the ball. Trying to get it true with some good spin on it. I feel like I've gotten some good results with it, but obviously it's still just Spring Training, so it's a process. I've made some strides, but I'm not where I want to be yet."
Valencia is also working hard to improve his defense, as he had trouble ranging to his left year because of his tendency to stand straight up, which allowed balls to get under his glove. He also is trying to set his feet better on throws, as he made 10 throwing errors last season.
"I've worked a ton on my defense," Valencia said. "After last year, obviously, you can't be content with the way things went. I need to get better. My defense is going to be a work in progress forever. It's not just going to be, 'Oh, he's great.' It's something I'm going to have to work at."
Gardenhire has noticed a difference already this camp, and he praised Valencia for making the necessary changes.
"He's attacking the ball a lot lower," Gardenhire said. "His legs are underneath him a lot better. The big thing with us is not standing up and going after a ball. He's staying low now. He's using his legs a lot better. That will help his movement automatically, because he's going to be closer to the ground rather than standing straight up in the air and having to go back down."
So while Valencia has been impressive at camp, it's only been through six games and he needs to prove it over the course of the season.
The Twins remain hopeful that Valencia can be their third baseman of the future, but now it's up to him to prove it this year.
"Everybody wants Valencia to take the next step is what it comes down to," Minnesota general manager Terry Ryan said. "There's no reason he shouldn't be a guy who's a productive member of this organization. We've been looking for a guy to get over there who's got the prototypical third-base skills, and he has them. Now we've just got to get some consistency, is all."