Albuquerque, New Mexico —— The way Pat Valaika sees it, he’s got a pretty strong swing from the left side of the plate for a right-handed batter. It’s all thanks to the backyard wiffle ball games he played with his brother, Chris—now a hitting coach in the Chicago Cubs‘ organization—as a child.
“We played in the backyard so we don’t want to lose too many balls, but we had to switch hit,” Valaika said during the Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes’ Media Day this week. “So my lefty swing is pretty damn good.”
He may never show it in pro ball, of course, but that’s just fine; after all, it’s already been a whirlwind twelve months for the infielder, a ninth round pick of the Colorado Rockies out of UCLA in 2013. He began the 2016 season with the Double-A Hartford Yard Goats, a team that spent all of last season on the road due to delays in the construction of their home ballpark. He hit .269/.314/.450 in 108 games there before being promoted to Albuquerque in August as a result of the promotion of infielder Rafael Ynoa up the chain to Denver.
But things didn’t go nearly as well for Valaika once he got to Albuquerque, as he only hit .209/.226/.327 in 28 games for the ‘Topes. It turns out the time he spent before that with the Yard Goats may have been among the most formative moments of his career, though—and not just because, as he confirmed, it made him a master suitcase packer.
“That was tough,” Valaika said of the eternal road trip. “There was nothing we could do about it. It wasn’t the easiest season, but we got through it and I think it brought together the team pretty well. It’s something I’ll never forget, that season. It was an interesting year.”
After that final month in Triple-A, Pat Valaika earned himself a September call up to the big leagues with the Colorado Rockies, where he debuted on September 6 against the San Francisco Giants, finally achieving what every kid who has ever played wiffle ball in their backyard all summer dreams of doing one day.
“It’s everything you dream of up [in the Majors],” Valakia said. “I was fortunate to have the opportunity to be up there.”
Valaika made the most of his time in the big leagues, hitting his first Major League home run at Chavez Ravine against the Los Angeles Dodgers. And all’s well that ends well, maybe, but the road to get there wasn’t always easy for the infielder. In 2015, as a member of the now-defunct Double-A New Britain Rock Cats, he hit .235/.281/.361, and had to repeat the level with the Yard Goats’ road trip in 2016. To his credit, though, it didn’t spark any major panic in his approach.
“I think each year I try to improve and, numbers-wise, 2015 wasn’t great, but I still thought I had a pretty good year, even though my numbers didn’t show it,” Valaika said. “I went back there [to Double-A], same mindset I always have, made little adjustments, and I guess more balls fell last year than the year before, but that’s kind of the game of baseball.”
Now, Valaika will take that same consistency in attitude into this season, his first full shot at Triple-A: building on last years successes, learning from last year’s mistakes and trying to get a taste of the big leagues once again.
“Prepare myself everyday, give everything I have to the game,” he said about looking ahead to 2017. “Be ready whenever they need me [in Denver], but I can’t think about trying to play so hard that it gets away from me. I’m looking forward to this season and playing with this team.”
Those around him are taking notice as well. Ask other Isotopes about Pat and you’ll hear it all, but one consistent refrain rises above everything else: he puts in work. A lot of work.
“As a Rockies manager I’ve had some pretty good players come through while I was managing,” ‘Topes field general Glenallen Hill told Baseball Census just minutes after his Albuquerque club won their Opening Day game on Thursday evening. “Nolan [Arenado], DJ [LeMahieu], Charlie [Blackmon], [Corey] Dickerson, a whole bunch of them. But what’s it like to be around a guy like Pat? That guy is a ballplayer. He comes with an agenda, he’s very consistent, and he’s eager to learn about things that he doesn’t know. It’s a joy to watch a young man go about his business the way he does and it’s a joy to see his teammates respond to it as well.”
That’s high praise for a player only just beginning what one hopes is a long big league career. It’s praise you’ll also hear from his teammates, too—like Jeff Hoffman, one of the Rockies’ top pitching prospects who started the season opener for the Isotopes on Thursday with Valaika behind him at short.
“It’s a big confidence booster, it’s a little bit of peace of mind that anything hit to the left side of the infield is going to get gobbled up,” Hoffman said. “He puts in a lot of work out there and he’s a talented guy in the infield so we are lucky to have him out there.”
Just as his teammates are happy to play with him for the next 139 games, Valaika is ready to roll into the summer. He’ll do everything he can for the Isotopes, but of course, the ultimate goal lies with the Colorado Rockies a few hundred miles to the north.
“Now the goal is just to get back [to the Majors],” Valaika summed up, the perfectly succinct thought running a baseline through every Triple-A ballplayer’s mind.
A consummate pro, Pat Valaika will get up to Denver soon enough if he plays the game like he’s back in the backyard with his brother Chris.
He just won’t be swinging left-handed once he gets there.
For our scouting report on Colorado Rockies infielder Pat Valaika, please click here.
To visit Pat Valaika’s Baseball Census player page, please click here.