Monday, November 15, 2004

Valentin: Not Appreciated But Also Not A Good Fit

I've had to endure more bagging on soon-to-be-former White Sox shortstop than I care to recall. If somebody isn't complaining about his error totals, they're remembering some time he struck out in one particular key situation -- thus "remembering" him failing in every key situation. (Nevermind moments like his game-tying home run at Oakland early this year, or many other big, big hits.)

But here are two things about Valentin:

1) The Sox have never used him as the righty-hitting half of a platoon at shortstop, leaving him exposed to left-handed pitching.

Valentin had 139 ABs against lefties last year, and he struck out 56 times in those ABs. His OBP is almost .150 higher against right-handed pitching. But the Sox still ran him out against left-handers, even putting him at the top of the lineup (remember 3 Ks on opening day against Brian Anderson?).

2) Valentin's defensive contributions are always undervalued because of his high error totals. But just like the fact that Jay Gibbons only has something like 3 carrer errors, the error total doesn't tell the whole defensive story.

Using any other defensive metric, Valentin rates as an above-average defender. His Range Factor last season of 4.58 easily beats the average of 4.12. (For his career he stands at 4.44, with the average at 4.09, so it was not a fluke).

He helped the Sox to the best Zone Rating at SS in the American League (.877 for Chi, vs. .869 for OAK and 8.58 for BAL). And his UZR shows him as actually saving the Sox five runs in the field. In the AL, that's second only to the nine runs Miguel Tejada saved the Orioles.

Now, before I get jumped on for being a one-sided Valentin apologist, let me just say I'm not trying to argue that he's a great player. He has his weaknesses, probably enough of them that his $5 million per year salary was a bit high.

But I am arguing that he is a good player that gets underrated because 1) he's asked to do things he can't do, which makes him look bad and 2) some of his biggest strengths aren't immediately visible.

I hope he's more appreciated whever he lands this offseason. And for the record, I don't think a return to the Sox is in his or the team's best interets. Mainly because his strengths only mildly correlate to the Sox' needs.

They need his left-handed power, but since he can't hit lefties, he's a liablity in the lineup. If the Sox commit to playing Juan Uribe at short, Willie Harris at second and Joe Crede at third (which they should), Valentin only squeezes into the lineup playing for Harris and Crede (occasionally resting Uribe, too).

But the problem with playing Jose in place of Willie or Joe is that all three struggle against left-handed pitching. That means there's not platoon advantage to doing it.

The Sox could still really use a player to fill in at third and second, but probably a lefty-killer like Placido Polanco (.858 OPS vs left, vis .767 vs right last season) would be a better fit.

Not being able to hit lefties means Jose is not an every day player anymore. But he should be a tremendous utility infielder. Just not on the south side of Chicago.

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