Beyond their coaches, big league hitters sometimes have someone else close to them they trust to help with their swing. It can be a friend, family member or even a player on another team.
Orioles infielder Pat Valaika has his own hitting coach in his family. Valaika, 27, is one of five children, and his oldest brother, Chris, played four seasons in the majors with three clubs. Now he’s the minor league hitting coordinator for the Chicago Cubs.
“During the quarantine he lived in Arizona and I’m in California, so I didn’t get to see him at all,” Pat Valaika said of Chris. “But he is one of those guys that I can call at any time to bounce things off of. He’s got a job to do and his priority is working with the Cubs, and I respect that. But at the same time, he’s my brother, so I feel I can bounce things off of him. He’s been a great help to me throughout my career. I’m just very fortunate and thankful for him.”
Chris Valaika, 34, was a third-round pick of the Cincinnati Reds in 2006 out of Cal-Santa Barbara. A few years later Pat would play at UCLA, winning a College World Series title in 2013.
Now he’s trying to win a utility job with the Orioles and looks to have a real solid shot to make the opening day roster, something he did in 2018 with Colorado. In parts of four seasons with the Rockies, from 2016-2019, Valaika hit .214/.256/.400 with 17 homers and 51 RBIs in 433 plate appearances. In 84 games in 2019 at Triple-A Albuquerque, he batted .320/.364/.589 with 22 homers, 75 RBIs and a .952 OPS.
He hit .333 during the first spring training and showed some pop with a double and three homers in 29 plate appearances. Throughout his career he’s continued to make adjustments with his swing and approach.
“Definitely evolved,” he said of his offense. “I just think the more time you spend in the big leagues and the more situations you’re put in, you can learn from. That is what I’ve been trying to do - learn from every situation. When I first came up, I was a very aggressive hitter. And it worked out for a while. But the league adjusted to me, so I have to adjust back. I’ve been working on being a little more selective and making sure I swing at the pitch I want to swing at.”
During the baseball shutdown he was mostly limited to hitting off a tee in his garage. But since arriving at Camden Yards to start July, things have been progressing swiftly.
“I think this three-week ramp up, it’s been quick but with a lot of stuff going on. I feel prepared, and they’re doing a good job of putting us in situations we’ll see during the season. I feel good and I feel ready.”
He said the competition for a utility job is pushing him, and he said that competition is good. In the minors he made more starts at shortstop than any other position, but in the bigs last season he played all four infield spots and he can also play corner outfield. If he makes the Orioles’ opening day roster, it will probably be that defensive versatility that cements his spot.
“It’s a big part,” Valaika said. “I take pride in being able to get plugged in at multiple spots. You know, my objective is to try and find a way onto the field somehow, a way into the lineup. If that’s in the infield, the outfield, DH, you know, I’m just trying to make an impact in that lineup.”
Santander’s return: The Orioles were delighted to get outfielder Anthony Santander back this week. He’s a middle-of-the-order bat on this team and a player that was showing his potential late last season. Santander revealed yesterday that he had tested positive for COVID-19 during intake a few weeks back, and that was why he was not on the field until Tuesday.
In early September 2019, Santander was batting .292 with an .854 OPS. A late slump left his final numbers at .261 and .773. He may have tired, or his falloff might have been due to a shoulder injury. Perhaps it was a little of both.
But over a stretch of 258 plate appearances and 60 games between June 21 and Aug. 31 he batted .299 with an .880 OPS along with 15 doubles, 15 homers and 42 RBIs. In a six-game stretch late in August, Santander was 13-for-25 with four home runs. On Aug. 31 in Kansas City, he homered from both sides of the plate in the same game, something done just 15 times by Orioles players in club history. He was 24 years and 316 days old when he did that, becoming the youngest Oriole to do it since Eddie Murray at age 23 on Aug. 27, 1979.
What was the key for Santander when his bat was heating up late in 2019?
“The opportunity that the manager gave me to play every day,” he said. “I always say this game is about adjustments, and if you don’t have an opportunity to play you can’t make it. I always say my work ethic. I like to come to the field and do everything I have to prepare and be ready to play 100 percent when the game starts.”
The Bowie group: The Orioles sent pitchers Branden Kline and Eric Hanhold to their alternate camp at Double-A Bowie on Wednesday. They joined a group there that includes pitchers Keegan Akin, Chandler Shepherd, Hector Velázquez, Michael Baumann, Isaac Mattson and Dean Kremer and catchers Adley Rutschman and Taylor Davis.
I asked manager Brandon Hyde how the Bowie group will stay ready once the season starts. Will it be 60 games for the Orioles and another 60 for the players remaining at Bowie? How will they run that camp there?
“I think the bottom line is that we’ll try to simulate a season as best as we possibly can,” Hyde said. “With doing intrasquads, continuing to stretch out starters, to be able to fill in a major league game on short notice is going to be tough. To not have a Triple-A season, it’s challenging in that you’re probably not going to be playing nine-inning, normal games, but you’re going to try to simulate that the best you possibly can.
“We’re going to try to match up starters down there to be able to cover us when needed, as well as develop. We have young guys down there also, guys who haven’t been in the big leagues yet, that we’re going to continue their development. And same with positions players, try to keep them as game-ready as possible. That’s not going to be easy because you’re not playing a normal season. So, try to get as many at-bats as possible, try to make it game-like, try to get the game reps defensively also. I think we’re going to be creative in how we do that down there.”