It was a Thursday night game in August 2020, and through six innings, four scattered singles and one walk were all the Orioles had mustered against Boston’s best starter, Nathan Eovaldi. The stand-in left fielder for the night, Pat Valaika, came to the plate with his team down 3-0 in the seventh. The righty greeted him with 97 mph high and on the outside corner. Valaika fouled it off. A second fastball sailed in at 96, high and wide of the plate. 1-1. Going to his cutter, Eovaldi missed inside at 90 mph. Ball two. Valaika squared up for the fourth pitch of the at-bat. Another cutter. It came in high, but down the middle. Valaika took a swing at it. Thwack! The ball sailed into the center-field bleachers, and all of a sudden, the Orioles were on the board.
That game? Oh, not much more to say about that game. The Orioles melted down in the ninth and lost, 7-1. But the point is, Pat Valaika put together a competitive at-bat as the Orioles were getting steamrolled to keep his team in the game. Once again, Valaika was showing why his bat had made him an indispensable piece of the roster, impossible for manager Brandon Hyde to leave on the bench.
Back in February, the 27-year-old infielder was considered a long shot for a utility infielder role on the Orioles roster. A ninth-round pick in the 2013 MLB draft, Valaika had debuted with the Colorado Rockies in September 2016 but made a grand total of 39 starts for Colorado in three seasons after that, putting together an uninspiring triple slash of .214/.256/.400 with an OPS+ of 59. Then, according to the Sun’s Jon Meoli—and Valaika himself—something changed for him in 2019. Down in Triple-A Albuquerque, Valaika started to get consistent at-bats, and he started hitting. And hitting: he hit .320 with 112 hits in 84 games, and the power came around, too: he clocked 22 home runs and put up an OPS of .952.
That late power surge notwithstanding, the Rockies felt that they’d seen all they had to see, and they put Valaika on waivers in the offseason. Like his current teammate, Hanser Alberto in 2019, Valaika was waived four times in the offseason (including twice by the Orioles) before ending up as a non-roster invitee in Orioles camp. That spring, Valaika proceeded to do what he’s done all season since, put up numbers at the plate too flashy to ignore: a .303 average with 6 RBIs in 13 games and a 1.040 OPS. And even so, let’s face it, if Stevie Wilkerson hadn’t broken a finger in spring training, we might never have heard of this guy.
And if not for injuries, replacements, substitutions and demotions—to José Iglesias, Chris Davis, Dwight Smith, Jr., a struggling (at one time) DJ Stewart, Anthony Santander—Valaika wouldn’t be getting the regular at-bats he is now. But he’s pretty much an everyday player at this point: he’s appeared in 40 of the Orioles’ 42 games, and in their last 20 games, he’s started 18 times.
It’s clear why Hyde likes him. All-around, Pat Valaika’s offensive production is solidly average. And I mean that in a good way: finding a reliable, replacement-level player off of the waiver wire is no joke! Valaika is hitting .269 (down from his .289 mark a week ago, but still .327 in the month of September) with an OPS of .708 and an OPS+ of 108. He ranks eleventh on the team in offensive WAR (behind Cedric Mullins, by the way, a crazy factoid), fifth in runs scored (17), seventh in hits (28), fourth in home runs (6), and fifth in slugging (.471). Valaika’s added value is really in his power numbers, which is interesting since power is something that came on for him pretty late in his career. (He didn’t start hammering the ball until he was playing Triple-A ball in 2019, and even in college at UCLA, Valaika hit a grand total of 6 home runs in 478 at-bats.) In 2020, his expected batting average (xBA) and expected slugging (xSLG) rank in the top 75% of the league.
Valaika, like several of his teammates also having good seasons, has also cut down on strikeouts: his career average is an unsightly 27.2% of Ks per at bats, but this season, it’s down to 19.8%. Interestingly, he’s seeing way more fastballs and fewer sliders or changeups this year than he has in the past. A leaguewide shift? Or just Pat the Bat proving he can hit pitchers’ offspeed stuff? Possibly the latter: Valaika’s slash line against what BRef calls “Power Pitchers” is .160/.222/.502, while against “Finesse Pitchers” he’s hitting .370/.393/.574. Give the man more breaking balls!
On defense, considering how much of the diamond Valaika has covered—he’s started 19 games at first, eight at second, four at third, 14 at short, and three at left—you’d forgive him if he had some growing pains. But on the whole, he’s been solid there, too. Valaika has just three errors on the year in 139 chances, and while Fangraphs considers him a subpar shortstop, he’s got an impressive UZR/150 of 7.4 at second base and 34.3 at third base.
Pat Valaika has, in short, done everything the team’s asked of him and turned out to be an incredible under-the-radar pickup. Most of the time, we’re judging the guys on the diamond, not the scouts who scout, or the GMs who sign them. This time around, though, Pat Valaika is making Mike Elias & Co. look pretty smart.