Adrian Valerio has every right to be frustrated. After all, he’s lost two months of the 2017 season, which was supposed to be his first taste of full-season ball. Even if he starts every game for the West Virginia Power for the rest of the season, he will have only played 27 games more than he did last year. Even more frustrating: both of his injuries were freak accidents (getting hit by a pitch on just the right spot to break a bone in his hand and taking a ball off the cheek when a throw deflected off a runner’s helmet).
Valerio, though, is using the setbacks for motivation. “There are sometimes injuries that you cannot avoid,” Valerio said. “You just have to try to control what you can control.”
Power manager Wyatt Toregas sees this perseverance in the clubhouse as well as on the field.
“One of the really cool qualities he has is he doesn’t get fazed by failure,” said Toregas, “which in this game is a huge plus because there’s so much of it.”
Coming off the hand injury, Valerio met his share of failure. He went 1-for-20 in his first five games off the DL in May, but he turned that around quickly, going 17-for-37 over a ten-game hit streak before going on the DL again. That streak included a .487 on-base percentage as the lead-off man for the Power. When went down the second time he had a .316/.361/.439 slash line.
“We had him in a really good spot right when he got hurt,” Toregas praised. “He came back [from the facial injury] where he started. We’ve been having a lot of the same conversations.”
They’ve been having a lot of the same results as well. Valerio went 2-for-20 coming back from the DL the second time before turning on the gas. Over the last four games, he has gone 7-for-16 with a remarkable four home runs. His slash line is back up to .289/.324/.515.
As an aside, Valerio goes through these highs and lows frequently, though usually not this dramatically. For example, last year Valerio started 21-for-65 in his first 16 games. He then followed with a 9-for-60 in his following 16 games. His strikeout rate in the second stretch stood at 21.7 percent as opposed to 15.4 percent over the first 16 games.
Still, Valerio has seen an improvement with West Virginia, a level that requires an advanced hitter’s approach, particularly as pitchers get more innings under their belt. In 2016, he struggled to drive the ball to all parts of the field, collecting a mere two hits to right field.
In 2017, he has been driving the ball better. His power has come through with massive blasts to left. He has shown he can go with a pitch and drive it up the right field line. Most notably, he is simply hitting the ball further. It seems the hand injury hasn’t affected his ability to grip the bat at all, and he is hitting the ball with authority.
Power hitting coach Ryan Long summed up Valerio’s identity, saying, “He’s going to be a guy who controls the barrel, moves the ball around, and if he runs into something [power-wise], he runs into something. Long-term, in my mind, I see a guy who can drive the ball out of the park later on.”
“He’s was just having good at-bats, and the hits were a byproduct of good at-bats,” said Toregas of Valerio’s 2017 offensive success. He has displayed good plate patience, seeing an average of 3.5 pitches in each plate appearance since coming off the DL on June 13.
“He doesn’t care if he goes 0-for-4 with four strikeouts. He’s still going to go out and try to give you a really good fifth at-bat,” Toregas concluded.
The weakest point of Valerio’s game at this point is his poor approach to breaking balls, particularly on the outside corner. Since most of his power comes from pulling the ball deep to left field, which requires anticipating pitches over the middle or on the inside part of the plate, he has no chance of reaching pitches on the outer half. The vigor of his swing has produced some laughable results when met with particularly nasty sliders.
He also struggles against left-handed pitchers, with a mere .231 OBP against southpaws.
Defensively, Valerio has been as advertised, or perhaps even better. Before Stephen Alemais went down with a wrist injury, the two split time at second base and shortstop. He has been error-free at second and has only committed four gaffs at short. Statistically, he makes fewer plays per game than Alemais. (Valerio’s range factor of 3.45 slightly trails Alemais’s 3.85.) Valerio, though, has better instincts and takes better routes to the ball.
Toregas said, “He has unbelievable body control, unbelievable range. He’s not really the fastest kid, but he just has baseball IQ and his first step is really good.”
Long, likewise, had praise for Valerio’s defensive abilities. “We work other parts of his game: his bunting, his base running, but obviously his defense is his meal ticket,” he said.
He has been working on funneling the ball to the chest rather than fielding it off to the side. This adjustment will enable him to transfer the ball from glove to hand more quickly and will position his body better to field bad hops.
“Sometimes I felt uncomfortable, being in front of the ball,” Valerio said, “but I had a play in Rome where I felt it more. Since then, I’ve been trying to get in front of it more.”
It’s a small shift that will make Valerio marginally better, but it, and the offensive improvements, could set him apart in a crowded lower-level position battle between Cole Tucker, Valerio, and Alemais.
Alemias, hands down, has the best defense of the lot, but he is also the oldest and hasn’t made the offensive improvements promised by his off-season works. He has been on the DL since May 18 and has only recently been able to take batting practice. When he returns to the Power, his presence will give Valerio more opportunities to play second base, versatility that aid him if he advances quickly and becomes blocked by Tucker.
Tucker and Valerio are approximately the same age, with Tucker holding a four month advantage. Tucker has shown strong offense in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League this year with a .270/.357/.417 line in 52 games. He has the best speed of the lot, and his high on-base percentage has enabled him to steal three times as many bases as Alemais and Valerio combined.
If Valerio holds up this strong offensive charge through the end of the season, he could profile as a strong two-hole hitter with the abilities to stick at either shortstop or second base. Toregas has high hopes for him.
“There’s a defensive tool,” Toregas said, “and if the offensive tool plays, there’s a possible Major Leaguer.” At this point, that’s a big “if,” but with the recent success, it’s looking more and more possible.