When Luis Valbuena went down during Spring Training with his Grade 1 right hamstring sprain after just getting back from hamstring surgery, it was disappointing to say the least. The Angels didn’t receive him back from the DL until early May and, here at Halos Heaven, we had high hopes after he crushed in his rehab stint.
And then the first half happened.
If knowing that he had a 59 wRC+ in that time frame isn’t enough to make you cringe, maybe rewording it as “Valbuena was 41% worse than a league average batter” will do the trick. He slashed .185/.267/.318 and was in Danny Espinosa territory, but with the tiniest bit more pop.
This wasn’t ideal, to be sure, but hamstring injuries can be nagging and as ESPN noted in their baseball injury primer:
Strains are assigned a grade of I (mild), II (moderate) or III (severe) and a strict timetable for return to play with any grade is impossible to guarantee. Teams rarely reveal the extent of a muscle injury to an athlete, which often cannot be precisely determined anyway (except in the case of a complete tear) but there are some guidelines to follow. A mild strain is often not even overtly noted as a formal injury, but may be as simple as a player feeling the leg "tighten up" during practice. A Grade I strain suggests that there is no or minimally visible damage to the muscle fibers, but there is microtrauma which results in pain and inflammation.
The trickiest part about hamstring strains is that players will often try to play through them, despite that aforementioned “pain and inflammation.” A team can not truly assess how much a player might be affected by a pulled hamstring as they can’t actually see anything wrong with it many times. The decision to reinstate him is based mostly on Valbuena’s word. This could be reason to suspect that his leg was still giving him discomfort.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that he just stunk when he first got back. He could have been out of his rhythm and just needed some time or he just might have been someplace else mentally. We can’t really know for sure, but there are reasons to be optimistic that the first half was a fluke.
The biggest reason we can be optimistic is his second half, especially against right-handed pitchers.
In what was a total shock to me, Valbuena actually turned in arguably the best half of his major league career against RHPs and one of the best halfs of his career against all pitchers. Against righties in this time frame, he slashed .231/.335/.603/.938 with a 145 wRC+ and an absolutely dominant .372(!) ISO. That ISO against righties was the fifth best in the majors among players with at least 150 plate appearances in that span, up there with Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Gallo, and the incredible JD Martinez.
His batted ball profile against righties also had positive things to say. Most importantly, his Fly Ball Rate was the highest of his career and his HR/FB Rate was an astronomical 26.2%, about 8 full percentage points higher than his previous high for any half against righties. Additionally, he cut his Infield Flyball Rate in half after the second half of the season. His Hard Contact, his power to his pull side, to center, even the other way, everything shows that this was just dominant batting in the second half.
What this means is that Billy Eppler should be putting Valbuena in at every opportunity against RHPs in 2018. Whether he stays at third or first, he needs to see playing time in a platoon with a batter who is stronger against lefties. In a slightly more perfect world, CJ Cron (who, when he is on is above average against both RHPs and LHPs) would be able to maintain consistency all season and be the full-time first baseman for cheap and Valbuena would platoon with a right-handed cheap part-timer at 3rd.
Getting the cheap part-timer who crushes lefties at 3rd is still an option even with Pujols and Ohtani, and it would absolutely leave Eppler with some cash to spend on rotation (darvishdarvishdarvishdarvishdarvish) or bullpen upgrade. He could also just get Cozart who a good deal of Halos Heaven has been aching for to play third and shift Valbuena to first as the primary first baseman.
Either way, Valbuena could be a pivotal part of the team in 2018 if he plays like he did down the stretch this past season. If he does, or even if he doesn’t, I’m certain we’ll see some memorable bat flips.