Some day, we can only hope, all of the strange things that have come along in the year 2020 due to the pandemic will be a distant memory. It will all be hazily recalled for the future’s young people who probably won’t care all that much, which won’t stop us from telling the stories.
As I look back on the Orioles season that just finished, there is one moment that stands out above all of the others. It’s not, strangely enough, any of the debuts of any of the prospects I was looking forward to seeing, or any of the things they accomplished. The biggest fun and exciting thing that I remember involved Pat Valaika.
There was no reason to have much excitement about Valaika being on the team before the season began. He ended up on the 2020 Orioles after an offseason that saw him claimed, waived, and claimed again by the O’s. They wanted him twice, but they also didn’t want him once. That’s not the kind of player who makes an impact, for the most part.
Except, on August 1, he did. In a game where the Orioles got their first taste of the (hopefully 2020 only) extra inning ghost runner rule, they made history by being the first ever team to complete a leadoff double play. After two innings keeping the Rays off the board, Valaika eventually came to bat, delivered the walkoff hit for the win, and then this happened:
ORIOLES (socially distanced) WALK-OFF!!!! pic.twitter.com/BJhg9wgKHP— Orioles on MASN (@masnOrioles) August 2, 2020
It’s so delightfully goofy, and so perfectly 2020 at the same time. The Orioles had something great happen and Valaika was the author of it, and that’s how they spontaneously celebrated in a year of social distancing and everything else. The one picture in my head from the 2020 Orioles season, above all others, is the picture at the top of this article. What was it like to be an Orioles fan this year? It was like that.
All of the above is me choosing to be nice about Valaika because when I think about him right now I also think about how he was pressed into filling in at shortstop for Jose Iglesias when Iglesias was injured enough to either not play or only be the designated hitter. Every game it felt like there was at least one play where a better shortstop would have played it better.
Not that you would have gotten this impression if you only listened to what they said about him on MASN. Mike Bordick, in particular, was fond of riffing on Valaika’s name (vuh-LAY-kuh) by saying things like “Valaika the rake-ah!” and “Valaika the playmake-ah!” Valaika had his moments, but come on. That’s a “stop trying to make fetch happen” in the wild if there ever was one.
Valaika also spent a lot of the season below the Belanger line, which is at .300 OBP for the Blade’s career mark. Even for a bench guy you kinda hope for better than that. He did finish above it, though, because he had seven hits in the last three games he played, so for the season he closed out with a .277/.315/.475 batting line.
You can take that from a super-utility type of player any season, even without a hot streak in his last three games. Valaika played in 52 games, started 38 of them, and played six different positions over the course of the season. Against lefties, the righty-batting Valaika hit .279/.354/.581.
That’s only over 48 plate appearances, so it’s a small sample size, but it’s an interesting one. There’s the idea of a platoon role there, if maybe not “starting more than half of the team’s games” role. Valaika rated 0.2 in both Baseball Reference and Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement. For any starting player, that’s disappointing. For your bench guy, it’s just what you want. If your replacement player is replacement level, you’re avoiding negative value.
Valaika is already 28, so he won’t be considered as part of the future core or anything like that. He might have a spot while the O’s are still building towards something better, and if they give him more chances he might well add to his improbable moments of glory like his extra-inning walkoff this season. If the Orioles are good two years from now, it’s not going to be Adley Rutschman and Ryan Mountcastle getting all of the big hits. Like it says in the song, you never know who’s gonna hear the call.
Other Orioles bench players in this short 2020 season did not make as much of a case for why they, specifically, should stick around in 2021. Although the team carried a third catcher for much of the season, Bryan Holaday only batted a total of 33 times. When he batted, he didn’t do much to leave a positive impression, hitting only .161/.212/.194. It’s not ideal.
The value that the Orioles got out of Holaday was more that his existence as an in case of minor injury insurance policy allowed the O’s to play both of their other catchers, Pedro Severino and Chance Sisco. That’s a luxury a team can’t afford in a season where there’s a 25-man roster, but in 2020 where there was a 28-man roster all season long, being more free to have either of your catchers pinch hit or be pinch hit is something. If he sticks on the 40-man roster for the entire offseason, I’d be stunned.
With Iglesias at times limited, Andrew Velazquez ended up starting 19 games at shortstop. He was the kind of player you’d call an automatic out, batting .159/.274/.206. That’s poor enough hitting where it’s tough to recoup the negative value no matter how good the defense is, though B-Ref did give him 0.2 WAR. Fangraphs put him at -0.2.
Velazquez is now 26 years old. This is not a guy where there’s going to be hope for some big offensive breakout. He probably is what he is. It seems like something will have gone wrong with roster construction if Velazquez is around on Opening Day 2021. He entered 2020 with two minor league options, according to Fangraphs, so if the O’s want to carry him on the 40-man all offseason, he might not be a bad guy to have as the 2021 Norfolk Tides shortstop, assuming there can be a 2021 Norfolk Tides season.
Overall this wasn’t a very good bench, but then, nobody’s bench is very good. The key is avoiding being completely horrible. Valaika feels like he was a bit better than, say, Stevie Wilkerson and Jace Peterson last year. Whenever they’re good again, it probably won’t be their bench that keeps the Orioles from being good or not, but it can’t hurt to fill out some decent players on there. They found a fine one in Valaika and maybe for next year they can find others.