Wilson Valdez, in "useful" mode. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Though they ultimately won the game, there was a moment in the top of the fourth inning of Sunday’s contest at PNC Park that just perfectly captured the bad-hoodoo pileup of a Phillies series played in Pittsburgh during the month of June. Trailing 2-1, with runners at the corners and one out, Domonic Brown ripped what looked like a single up the middle to score Ryan Howard and tie the game at 2. But second-base umpire Chad Fairchild couldn’t get out of the way of the sharply hit ball, and the umps ruled that Howard had to go back to third, loading the bases. This brought Wilson Valdez to the plate.
In about the least surprising denouement possible, the man we call Exxon grounded into a double play to kill the threat; more on that in a minute. But perhaps even worse, when he stepped in against Pirates starter James McDonald—who’d already walked two batters, thrown two wild pitches, and hit Carlos Ruiz in the inning—he hacked at the first pitch, fouling it off. On the second pitch, Valdez barely got out of the way of an errant McDonald pitch… and on the third offering, he killed the threat. McDonald went on to walk the first three hitters in the fifth inning before getting lifted. The two outs Valdez created to end the fourth were the last the Pirates righty recorded on the day.
Valdez is a 33 year-old journeyman who began the 2010 season at the Phils’ AAA affiliate in Lehigh Valley. Called upon when injuries beset the infield and the stench of Juan Castro’s game became unbearable, he set career highs almost across the board that season with 111 games played, 363 plate appearances, 37 runs scored, 86 hits, 16 doubles, 3 triples, 4 homers, 35 RBI and 7 steals. His triple-slash line of .258/.306/.360, more than acceptable given low expectations and the team’s dire need with injuries to Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, still only translated to a 78 OPS+--meaning that Valdez was 22 percent worse than the MLB-average hitter—and True Average of .235. Still, largely on the strength of his defensive contributions, Valdez contributed a 6.9 VORP and 0.5 WARP.
Set against all that were the double plays. Valdez entered 2010 with 9 for his career; he almost matched that in May, hitting into eight twin killings in 60 plate appearances. For the year, he hit into 20 double plays in 83 opportunities to do so, a 24 percent rate that tied Kansas City’s Billy Butler for second-worst in the majors among hitters who batted in more than 25 potential-DP situations. (A high DP rate isn't necessarily the marker of baseball futility: Ivan Rodriguez of the Nationals, a likely future Hall of Famer, was the majors' worst last season among batting title qualifiers at 28 percent, and Albert Pujols, who should go in unanimously, is near the top this season at 24 percent. But Exxon ain't they.) The Phillie with the next most double plays was Raul Ibanez, who had 15 in 636 plate appearances for an 11 percent rate, which is around the MLB average. Perhaps surprisingly, one need go back only five years to find a Phillie who topped Valdez’s DP total; less surprisingly, it was David Bell, who grounded into 24 in 2005. With 617 plate appearances, though, Bell’s rate was 17 percent.
Cut to 2011, and, notwithstanding his egregious at-bat against McDonald Sunday, Valdez’s DP rate is slightly down: he’s hit into 6 in 35 opportunities, a rate of 17 percent. Unfortunately, everything else is down too: Valdez was batting .244/.288/.298 entering Monday night's game, his .585 OPS by far the worst of any Phillies hitter with at least 100 plate appearances, as was his OPS+ of 61. As of the weekend, his slugging percentage was 237th out of 254 major-leaguers with at least 125 plate appearances.
Valdez probably merits a major-league job. He can play pretty much every position on the diamond—including pitcher, as he showed on May 25 when he became the first position player to earn a victory in more than a decade and the first pitcher to win a game he started at another position since Babe Ruth 90 years earlier. He plays most of them pretty well, based on both metrics and observation. He’s a decent base runner, and he can bunt. (In fact, given his soft contact tendencies, I wish he’d be instructed to bunt more often in those DP situations.)
What he doesn’t merit is the seventh-most plate appearances on the team. As measured by VORP, Valdez is sub-replacement level in 2011; if he’s going to play the role originally intended for him—a once or twice a week starter to spell aging stars Utley and Rollins—that’s survivable, but as the Phillies’ offensive woes continue, they’ll need a better option if circumstances dictate a larger role.