With all the doom and gloom surrounding this year's offense and the intense focus on Castro and Rizzo, Luis Valbuena's fantastic season seems to have fallen through the cracks. Valbuena currently has a line of .248/.361/.421* on the year, good for a .339 wOBA and about 1 WAR through two months of the season. What the hell?
*Today's game, in which Valbuena homered, will only improve those numbers
When the Cubs acquired Valbuena, he looked like another hitter in the Joe Mather mold. Valbuena had spent the previous three seasons with Cleveland, where he put up a whopping negative 1.7 WAR with a combined line of .224/.283/.344. His defense rated terribly at second base as well. As awful as Josh Vitters was last year, it was still kind of surprising that Valbeuna saw so much playing time.
After the Cubs picked him up in 2012, he tore up the PCL to the tune of .303/.378/.507, but did not do so well at the big league level. However, Valbuena's .290 wOBA masked big improvements in his walk rate (up to 12%) and his ISO, which jumped to .121 after two anemic years in Cleveland. Valbuena also looked much better at 3b than at the keystone, and the defensive metrics agreed (small sample sizes, obviously). If he just improved on last year's .219 batting average his numbers would look pretty good, and the .260 BABIP seemed to suggest that some improvement was coming.
Fast forward to this year, where his batting average has fittngly improved by about 30 points. On top of that, he's upped his walk rate to 14.5%, which leads the team by a wide margin, and has flashed even more power.
One possible explanation for his improved batting numbers is the Cubs agressive platooning strategy this year. Valbuena has had 145 PAs, and only 17 of them have been against lefties (about 11% of them). Previous to this year he had also been held back against most lefties, only recording ~16% of his PAs against them. This probably accounts for some of the improvement.
Pitchers don't seem to be approaching him any differently – the only relatively big difference is that he's seen fewer sinkers and cutters, but that's probably just a sample size issue. He's been crushing fastballs much better than he has in the past. His plate discipline numbers haven't changed too much, but it is interesting to see that he's seen about 4% fewer strikes this year. It could just be crappier pitching, but it could also be that pitchers are starting to avoid him a bit now.
The projection systems still haven't bought in to Valbuena's improvement. Both ZiPS and Steamer have him pegged at a .313 wOBA for the rest of the year, good for another 0.6 WAR, suggesting a true talent level of 1.0 or so. What they do believe is for real is his walk rate, though only at 10% or so rather than the current 14.5. Still, a 10% walk rate would lead all the regulars on this team (unless you count Ryan Sweeney, which I don't). Even when he inevitably regresses, maybe the Cubs should start considering batting him higher in the order, and moving the slumping Starlin Castro down the lineup.