Lucky or Good? How Luis Valbuena Has Hit 19 Home Runs

PITTSBURGH – A quick perusal of the MLB Home Run Leaders lends itself to the usual suspects at the top: Giancarlo Stanton, Albert Pujols, Nelson Cruz, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.

But there is also a current Houston Astros player nestled between the big names sitting atop home run mountain.

A glance at last year’s numbers would would lend one to believe that name to be Chris Carter, who led the ‘Stros with 37 home runs last year? Or perhaps it’s uber-prospect, now full-time outfielder George Springer, who blasted 20 HR’s in just 295 AB’s last year? Or could it be journeyman outfielder/designated hitter Evan Gattis whose massive frame and lightning-fast swing can make the bat look like a toothpick in the giant meat hooks he calls hands.

In fact, it’s none of the above.

A 5’10”, 200 lb., journeyman third baseman/second baseman, who is hitting .195 with an OBP of .269 and a strikeout rate of 22.4%, can lay claim to the title of leading home run hitter amongst a team stacked with guys who have a propensity for the long ball.

After hitting two more home runs last night in a 13-3 win over the Los Angeles Angels, Houston third baseman Luis Valbuena is second in the American League, and tied for fourth-place overall, with 19 home runs.

He is currently on pace for 42 home runs, which would almost triple his career-high of 16 set last year while playing for the Chicago Cubs. As a guy who showed promise in 2009 with Cleveland (.250/.298/.416 with 10 HR’s in 398 PA’s) but was let go to make room for Jason Kipnis, Valbuena always seemed to have this ‘hidden power’, in him.

While Valbuena had reached double digits in home runs in three of the last six seasons, 2014 with Chicago was the first time he reached 400 plate appearances in a season. Prior to 2014, as a member of the Cubs, Indians and Mariners, Valbuena – who bats left-handed – was used primarily against right-handed pitchers.

Now, given full playing time, it would stand to reason he would break out like this.

Astros beat writer Evan Drellich has a story today about the amount of offseason work Valbuena put in during the offseason:

So where’s all this power coming from? Valbuena said he greatly increased his workout effort this past offseason. Tripled it, he said. He spent time in Orlando and at home in Venezuela.

He said he took only a week and a half off after the 2014 season closed.

“A couple years ago, I was working, but right now, I’m working triple,” Valbuena said. “Because I pay more attention, working more about all my body. That’s the mental difference.

“I (went) to the gym every day. Go running. After, I go to the gym.”

The extra offseason work has seemed to pay off when Valbuena pulls the ball, where he’s hitting .329 and has connected on 14 of his 19 home runs. But when you look at his peripherals, nothing really stands out.

While his ground ball rate has gone down from 38.4% to 30.8% and his fly ball rate has increased from 41.3% to 52.2%, all his numbers are very much in line with his previous career marks. Valbuena is still basically a platoon guy, who is getting more at-bats than his batting skills perhaps warrant (even though he is hitting just .219 versus righties).

Clearly he has some pop when hitting it to right side. This much we know. But how about the left side?

When we look at his home runs to the opposite field, we see that he is the benefactor of some good luck – specifically, calling Minute Maid Park home.

The ESPN Home Run Tracker measures home runs in three categories:

1) “Just Enough” or “JE”, which means the ball cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet, OR that it landed less than one fence height past the fence. These are the ones that barely made it over the fence…

2) “No Doubt”, or “ND”, which means the ball cleared the fence by at least 20 vertical feet AND landed at least 50 feet past the fence. These are the really deep blasts…

3) “Plenty”, or “PL”, which is everything else.

In 2015, Valbuena has had 10 of his home runs fall under the PL category, while three have registered as ND, three more as JE and three others as JE/L (which stands for ‘Just Enough/Lucky’).

Of those six home runs which fell under the JE or JE/L category? Five of the six were opposite field shots to the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park.

Here are the five home runs in question:

According to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, three of the five home runs would not have been home runs in any of the 29 other parks in MLB, while two of the five home runs would have been a home run in just one other park.

Take a look below at the landing spots for Valbuena’s home runs, relative to how they would have fared at AT&T Park, Marlins Park and PNC Park.

AT&T Overlay Marlins Park OverlayPNC Overlay

As we knew before (but now with the help of a visual aid), we can see none of Valbuena’s opposite field shots would have been home runs in anywhere but Minute Maid. In fact, at the vast expanse that is left field at PNC Park, most of Valbuena’s home runs would have been routine fly balls.

Moreover, the five home runs to left field at Minute Maid Park have registered in the bottom 16 in terms of ball exit velocity on all home runs hit this year. Valbuena’s home run versus Seattle on May 2 (the third video in the sequence above), had the third-lowest exit speed of any home run hit this year at 91.1 miles per hour, traveling a distance of 331 feet.

As it seems, while the offseason work has paid off for Valbuena, he still owns a league-worst BABIP of .171 and may find himself on the wrong side of a platoon with Carlos Correa when Astros shortstop Jed Lowrie comes back from injury (Lowrie’s return would allow the Astros to move Correa to third – Valbuena’s position).

For now, as long as pitchers keep allowing him to pull the ball, he should have an everyday job for years to come.