September 15, 2005

Javier Valentín: Is He For Real?

When Javier Valentín began his mammoth production at the end of May, people were glad to see the little guy have a few good games. But soon he'd be back to his career norms.

A few weeks later, his continued performance was a great boon for the Reds, but it was just an aberration. He would soon regress to his career norms.

Now that the season has just 17 games remaining, Javy has had a career year. But does anyone think it can last? Next season, will he return to his career norms?

I hate career norms. To be more specific, I hate using them to judge players who are still actively in the process of creating their career norms. For players of baseball, just like for players of life, defining their contribution is a journey, not a destination. And just because many people choose to linger on the same few roads through the course of their journey doesn't mean that the trip can take you only to places that you've already been.

Especially in Valentín's case. This round little 29-year old cannot attribute his recent success to youthful athleticism, for he is neither particularly young nor particularly athletic. It's not God-given talent that's he's been demonstrating all along. The off-season didn't see him pumping up, slimming down, or getting laser eye surgery.

No, Javy's improvements can only be attributed to his mind. Something he has learned this year has brought his offensive play into stunning focus. And that's supported by the quotes about plate discipline and confidence that he's been providing the media these last few months. Valentín is suddenly “seeing the ball,” but it doesn't have anything to do with his eyes. It's his brain that suddenly knows what to do when faced with a pitch.

This isn't the first time you've heard this story: something clicks for a player in his late 20s or early 30s that catapults him from merely “adequate” up into the ranks of “good.” Had he figured it out 10 years earlier, maybe he could have been a star, but instead he plays out his career in relative obscurity, a solid contributor and -- yes -- a veteran presence.

Not to say that it's impossible that Javy will forget what he's learned this year. The off-season is long and the opportunities to slip into mediocrity are many. Spring training 2006 could see the Latin Love Machine playing out his 2003 numbers.

But I, as usual, am more hopeful than that. I have approved of what I've seen of and heard from Valentín this season. He seems to have his head in the right place, and his head is what's important for keeping him in this realm of reliability. If Javy can keep his wits, there's no saying where his journey could take him next.

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