DENVER — Pat Valaika had an electric rookie season which saw him turn into one of the best pinch hitters in all of baseball. The Colorado Rockies struck gold in Valaika’s ability to jump on mistakes and put them over the fence.
But for the past two years, Pat Valaika has been stuck in a deep slump. The .817 OPS he carried in 2017 fell to .460 last year. In 30 plate appearances this year for the Colorado Rockies, he has just two hits (one double) in 30 plate appearances.
That just begins to tell the story. Valaika’s -1.6 fWAR since the start of 2018 is the worst in the National League. His wRC+ of zero is the worst of any player with over 150 plate appearances. Even looking at RBI, nobody in baseball with over 150 plate appearances since the start of last season has fewer RBI than Valaika.
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This stems from the ironically nicknamed “Patty Barrels” having trouble finding the barrel. Over 135 batted balls in 2017, he barreled the ball nine times. Since then, he’s found barrel just three times across 108 batted balls. The drop in percent from 6.7 to 2.8 percent, represents falling from about 150th in baseball to 350th in a sample of about 400 players.
While the barrel problem is easy to look at, the issues cut deeper for the 26-year-old. Out of all players in MLB since the beginning of 2016 (when Valaika would make his debut), he falls behind in the count more than anyone not named Max Scherzer. In his 377 career plate appearances, he has fallen to 0-1 in the count 70 percent of the time. That’s higher than any single batter with over 250 plate appearances since the 2016 season.
Valaika, like every other batter in MLB, does not have as much success when behind in the count. His OPS falls from .667 when ahead to .510 when behind.
Still, it’s not as simple as changing your approach because Valaika has proven to be a very good first pitch hitter, OPS’ing .763. That comes out to be about 33 percent better than the league. And, oddly enough, he actually has a terrific OPS of 1.031 in his career when down 0-1, which comes out to about 116 percent better than league average.
It makes sense that Valaika has fallen behind a lot given that he swings at 54.2 percent of all pitches, which is 27th most in the game out of the same pool of 500-plus players. It also makes sense that he’s swinging a lot because he’s hitting balls early in at-bats. This leads to Valaika seeing the 17th-fewest pitches per plate appearances at 3.59 among all players in MLB last year with more than 150 plate appearances.
Part of that equation is him going down 0-1 and swinging a lot … but the other part is him being retired rather quickly. Of course, batters are more likely to see offspeed and breaking stuff when behind in the count and that’s where Valaika has really struggled.
In his career, he hits .246 with an average exit velocity of 85.3 MPH whereas it’s .200 at 78.9 MPH against offspeed stuff and .159 at 82.7 MPH for breaking pitches. It is a pretty significant mark that’s hard to tell if it’s causation or correlation but nonetheless telling the final story.
That story is this: Valaika has struggled for a long time now. The bolstering he once did to the Rockies bench has not been true of the last calendar year-plus. The utility infielder was a valued part of the 2017 playoff run but his power just hasn’t been there since. Clearly, his recipe for success is off somewhere along the lines, but each player in baseball has a unique way of making it.
To say Valaika will never be anything again is probably false. He is a decent depth for a club … but the truth is that his struggles have become glaring.
Note: All stats used in this article were prior to Monday, April 22, when Valaika walked in his only plate appearance.