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Updated: June 19th, 2011 10:32pm
Mackey: A sophomore slump for Danny Valencia? Not so fast

Mackey: A sophomore slump for Danny Valencia? Not so fast

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by Phil Mackey
1500ESPN.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- It's been an odd season offensively for Minnesota Twins third baseman Danny Valencia, to say the least.

After blasting home runs on Friday and Saturday against the San Diego Padres, Valencia, who is currently sidelined with a mild upper-arm strain, ranks second on the team with seven bombs and leads the squad with 32 RBIs.

On the other hand, Valencia owns a meager .218/.279/.351 batting line that ranks him 146th in the majors out of 164 qualified hitters in OPS. Fellow Twins infielders Luke Hughes (.637), Alexi Casilla (.685) and Trevor Plouffe (.693) have been better than Valencia.

Valencia also came into the weekend hitting just .233 with runners in scoring position, despite his team-leading RBI total.

So is the 26-year-old Valencia simply falling prey to the clichéd sophomore slump?

Not so fast.

Valencia has actually been one of the unluckiest hitters in baseball so far this season.

According to batted ball data kept by Major League Baseball, Valencia has hit 41 line drives -- not counting hard groundballs and well-hit, towering fly balls. Only 21 of those 41 line drives have fallen in for hits (.512 batting average).

The major league average is .720, and the only hitter who has experienced worse results -- or worse luck -- on line drives this season than Valencia is Chone Figgins (.500).

"I feel good in the box," Valencia said Friday. "I was just actually talking to (a teammate) about that. I can't believe I'm hitting (.218) I feel like I'm hitting .300. And it's unfortunate, because it doesn't show it. Reality is I'm hitting (.218), and those lineouts are just outs. But at the same time, they keep you positive because you know you're swinging the bat pretty well."

Friday night provided perfect evidence. Valencia came up to bat in the fifth inning against San Diego left-hander Clayton Richard with a runner on first base and two outs. He lined a 3-1 pitch down the left-field line, but third baseman Chase Headley made a back-handed stab to steal an extra-base hit.

"Defensively it feels like they're positioning the infielders a little bit more pull, covering the hole," Valencia said. "And the third baseman is maybe a step more down the line, and the second baseman is playing up the middle, so it's tough to go up the middle. As far as pitching me, they're working me in and out, but I kind of expected that. I would say more positioning than the way they pitch me."

"It is shocking," he added, "because you know those are the hits you need. When you hit a ball good -- this is the only sport where you can do everything 100% right and still fail. So when you hit the ball hard and it gets caught, it's frustrating. And when you do it half the time and you get out, when you do something perfect, it's tough. And that's why my average isn't where I feel it should be."

Of course, even if the baseball gods were to credit Valencia with a few extra line-drive hits to even things out -- say, two doubles and six singles -- he'd still be hitting .250/.309/.391.

Much more respectable, but certainly not the .311/.351/.448 line he posted in 2010 while finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting -- a year in which, by the way, Valencia hit .827 on his line drives.

In other words, Valencia has been extremely unlucky this season, but that doesn't fully bridge the gap between his 2010 and 2011 performances.

"I don't know if it's part of the game or not," Valencia said Sunday when asked about the notion of a sophomore slump. "But who wants to talk about something like? I mean, sophomore year, your second year in the big leagues, now they have a little bit more of a book out on you and they have more scouting on you, and they can position themselves differently and the pitchers pitch you a little bit differently.

"I think your sophomore year it's more of an advantage to the pitcher, because what you did when you were successful your first year, you're going to probably stick with because you were successful doing it. Now they're adjusting to what you did. You're not trying to change up and be somebody different your second year after you had success your first year. You want to stick to what you've done when you had success. If they change and you don't, then you'll obviously start hitting into their defensive alignments, and they start pitching you a little bit differently."

So besides luck, what else is different?

"This year I haven't gone to right field as well as I did last year," he said. "Last year my bread and butter was going the other way really well. And even though there's times when I do go to right field, it's not been like it was last year when I felt like I could go to right field at any time on any pitch. So I need to get back to using the whole field, really."

The numbers back up that theory. Valencia batted .357 and slugged .500 on balls hit up the middle last year, and .241 with a .310 slugging percentage to opposite field. This year Valencia is hitting just .239 up the middle with a .316 slugging percentage, and .125 to opposite field with no extra-base hits.

And while Valencia tries to climb the batting average ladder, manager Ron Gardenhire has not been shy about voicing his desire for the third baseman to pick things up offensively. Gardenhire was particularly peeved at some of the pull-happy at bats Valencia took in Kansas City earlier this month and wound up benching him for two straight games in Cleveland.

"I think he enjoys it, to tell you the truth," Gardenhire said, regarding Valencia handling criticism. "I think it makes him feel like he's a part of stuff when people are getting on him. Because he's constantly saying, 'How come these guys are getting on me about this, Gardy, and not getting on this guy about this?' So I know he likes it. I really believe he likes that stuff."

Of course, he'd probably like it even more if those line drives would start falling in for hits.

Phil Mackey is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
Email Phil | @PhilMackey | Mackey & Judd
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