OAKLAND, Calif. -- Growing up in Miami, Oakland Athletics third baseman Danny Valencia used to pretend to be Ken Griffey, Jr., in impromptu home run derbies. Being a right-handed hitter, the sweet lefty stroke didn't quite translate.
When Junior won the 1998 Home Run Derby at Coors Field, Valencia was just 14.
Years later, Valencia returned home for a home run derby as part of Miami's Alumni Game festivities. Also in the running was his one-time Hurricanes teammate and future Oakland teammate Yonder Alonso.
"Yonder was in the home run derby I was in. I don’t think he even hit one," Valencia says, his voice rising just a hair, as he notices that his locker mate jamming to his iPod, oblivious of the world around him.
“He thought it was a doubles derby,” Valencia says with a wink. “He hears what I’m saying.”
No reaction at all from Alonso’s quarters. Valencia guesses he hit five in that particular derby.
“But, I did win it, so I was happy about that,” he says.
Alonso and Valencia played on the same Connie Mack summer league team in high school. They reached Omaha and the College World Series together with the Hurricanes in 2006. After Alonso was traded to the A's in December of 2015, they reunited. Alonso has been Valencia's press secretary this year, as the Oakland third baseman has gone on an 11-home runs-in-22-games tear since coming off the disabled list on May 7. Over that stretch, Valencia went 56-for-167 (.335), with 29 RBIs, 8 doubles, a .385 OBP and a .581 slugging percentage.
Included in that span was a series in front of family and friends at Tampa Bay, where he slugged five longballs.
"I’m pushing for him to do the Home Run Derby this year for the All-Star Game, because I think he’ll definitely put on a show," Alonso says.
“I think we’d all be lying if we said we didn’t grow up, wanting to be in the Home Run Derby, and participate in something like that," Valencia says. "As kids, we grew up trying to simulate the Home Run Derby. Anybody who does it, it’s always been a dream.”
It's a dream, that, thanks to his recent hot streak, could come to fruition.
'I defeated all the odds.'
Valencia didn't earn a scholarship to Miami out of high school. He did earn a full ride to UNC Greensboro. He played there for a year before transferring to his dream school, where he received a modest partial scholarship.
He gained 40 pounds, and hit .300, driving in 63 runs and making the All-Regional Team with the Hurricanes in his first season back home. When Ryan Braun left to join the Milwaukee Brewers in 2005, Valencia moved from first base to third, and hit .324 with a .475 slugging percentage.
By the time his career in Coral Gables was done, he had a career .312 batting average, 124 RBIs and a College World Series under his belt. During that run to Omaha, Valencia hit .324 with nine home runs and 61 RBIs, second on the team only to Jemile Weeks.
“That season, he was probably one of our best players," Alonso says. "I was a freshman, he was a junior, and I remember a guy that pretty much took us to Omaha, him and the other guys. He was a guy that came to play, every day, at Miami, and definitely was one of the main core guys at Miami.”
He was drafted in 2006 by the Minnesota Twins in the 19th round, 576th overall. To say Valencia was disheartened is an understatement.
“Everyone wants to go in the first round," says Valencia, who was confronted with a choice: Stay with the Hurricanes, or go pro. He went to the Cape Cod League to mull it over. "I didn’t know if I was going to sign or not, and I played really well out there. I was obviously disappointed, because just like anybody else that gets drafted late, you feel like you should have gone earlier. Looking back at it now, I think it’s made me into the person I am today. Because of it, I’ve used it as motivation. Not everybody can be a first-round draft pick, but that being said, it was definitely an uphill battle for me, getting drafted and going to minor league ball, and I’m just happy that I defeated all the odds.”
Once Valencia got to the big leagues in 2010, he bounced between five teams in his first four years. After a .311 start with Minnesota in 2010, he hit over .300 again just once -- in 52 gams with Baltimore in 2013. Just before the trade deadline in 2014, he was dealt to the Toronto Blue Jays. It proved to be more than instructional.
“I was fortunate enough to work with a couple of really great hitters in Toronto, and I think they helped me out a lot," Valencia says. "Up until that point, I’d never played with that type of hitter, who hit like that, for power, and had a different mindset and a different approach. I’d played with some pretty good hitters in the past, but none like the guys I played with in Toronto. They made me feel like I could do what they were doing, and they were doing things that were amazing. I think that really helped.”
From 2010 through 2014, Valencia had a BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .264 against right-handed pitchers. Once he arrived in Toronto, that jumped up to .329.
His isolated power, likewise, against righties, jumped from .124 to .271. It was the first time in his career that he hit right-handers for power. In 105 games, he hit .290 overall, with a career-best 18 home runs. He hadn't hit more than eight since his second year in the Major Leagues.
“Joey Bats [Jose Bautista] was huge for me," Valencia says. "Being around guys like him and Edwin Encarnacion, and watching [Josh] Donaldson day after day, they all hit very similar, and they all have a leg kick, and they’re all talking about swing path, and I was able to pick some of their brains, deduce some of the things that help them be successful, and I was able to incorporate some of that into my game, and it was nice to be able to have some success with it.”
When Valencia found out that he was claimed off of waivers by the A's, he immediately called Donaldson.
“I asked him some things, what to expect, how things work over there, and he gave me good insight. For the most part, it’s been pretty spot-on," Valencia says. “I just talked to JD a couple of days ago. He’s a good friend of mine, and I’m happy for him, just like he’s happy for me.”
After the move, he hit .284 with 11 home runs and 37 RBIs in 47 games, slugging .530 with a 97 total bases -- more than the 82 he racked up in Now playing in 58 gams with the Blue Jays.
Taking over Donaldson's old spot at the Coliseum, Valencia started the 2016 season modestly, hitting .294 with no home runs and two RBIs in 14 games, until he left an April 20 game against the New York Yankees after being thrown out while trying to score. He'd strained his hamstring, landing on the 15-day disabled list.
“I feel like my swing was actually getting close before I actually went on the DL," Valencia says. "I was gradually getting better and better and better, was starting to be able to drive the ball."
One day after he came off the DL, Valencia immediately went to testing his hamstring.
In the second game of a May 8 doubleheader against Baltimore, Alonso lined a 1-1- double into the left field corner, driving home Josh Reddick easily, but Valencia wasn’t far behind, chugging around third as the throw from Joey Rickard came in to Manny Machado. Machado easily gunned Valencia out at the plate, as he awkwardly slid feet-first into a tag by Matt Weiters. As Reddick helped Valencia up, he sighed.
“It’s in the back of your head, obviously, but it was nice to be able to pop up out of that and feel OK," he says.
Valencia had at least one base hit in his first six games back, and it was against the Rays where he really came alive, slugging two home runs against Tampa Bay in a 6-3 series-opening win on May 13. Once again, he tested the hamstring, making a sprinting, diving catch of a potential game-tying liner with the bases loaded in the ninth.
Two days later, he mashed three home runs in a single game, emphatically announcing he was back, and he was aiming for the Home Run Derby in San Diego.
“It was pretty surreal. I’ve never done that before – hit five home runs in three days – but, hitting for power is streaky," Valencia says. "Guys can hit five, six, seven home runs in a seven- or 10-day period.”
The hits kept on coming.
"He was sticking to his approach," says A's hitting coach Darren Bush. "He was starting to realize and go back to, ‘I need to take my hits, and when they make mistakes, I’ll get ‘em.’ Instead of trying to create the power, he was just letting the power happen, and it was starting to come along, and then he got hurt. He just picked up right where he left off, which is good.
“He just wasn’t missing. He’s got to stick to his approach. If he doesn’t stick to his approach, he’s going to get big, he’s going to get fast, he’s going to roll over. When he sticks to his approach and trusts his swing, he can just flat-out hit.”
It looks like that hamstring pull could have actually helped, but Alonso thinks otherwise.
“I don’t know about that," he says. "He might have 20 by now.”
The chip on his shoulder that Valencia carried ever since heading to UNC-Greensboro, the chip that got bigger when he was passed over through the first 18 rounds of the the 2006 draft, it's still there. It shows up every day in the batting cage, and, if he keeps slugging, it could show up at Petco Park in San Diego, on July 11.
“He’s in the cage every single day. He’s got the same, exact routine," Bush says. "Every day, I know what he’s doing. He goes out on the field, running, and then he’ll come in and stretch. Once he’s done stretching, he’s coming in the cage and he’s getting his work in. It’s like clockwork. He knows his swing, and he’s trying to maintain his swing, and when he’s going off, when he’s not swinging the bat the way that he should, simple little things, adjustments in the way he’s thinking and what he’s trying to do, more than swing.”