DENVER -- Pinch-hitting is often the domain of fellows with a little white in the whiskers. Well, at 25, all the Rockies' Pat Valaika can offer is a goatee when he lets it grow.Oh yeah. Facial hair, and outstanding hitting numbers.Last year as a rookie, Valaika led Major League pinch-hitters
DENVER -- Pinch-hitting is often the domain of fellows with a little white in the whiskers. Well, at 25, all the Rockies' Pat Valaika can offer is a goatee when he lets it grow.
Oh yeah. Facial hair, and outstanding hitting numbers.
Last year as a rookie, Valaika led Major League pinch-hitters in runs (12), doubles (eight) and extra-base hits (12), while tying for the lead in homers (four) and driving in 16 runs -- most for a rookie pinch-hitter since the MLB rookie rule was established in 1958.
The extra-base hits tied for the club record with John Vander Wal (1995) and Greg Norton (2003). Valaika homered in consecutive pinch-hit appearances on July 23 at Pittsburgh and July 24 at St. Louis to match Mark Sweeney (2004). All three of the players he equaled were established Major Leaguers when they held the job in purple pinstripes.
"I knew it was hard, but I was never going to use that as an excuse," said Valaika, who began the 2017 season at Triple-A Albuquerque, but didn't go back after being called up on April 18. "It was my job to do. I took it as if I'm not succeeding and performing at it, then somebody else will be.
"I'm going to do my best. That worked out for me. There are going to be stretches where you're not going to get a hit for a while. There will be stretches where five in a row I might get a hit. You've got to stay very even."
Valaika, a shortstop at UCLA, saw action at five positions. His first 2017 start was in left field, a position he had barely played and appeared at just once the rest of the year. He mostly played shortstop, where he started 16 of his 22 appearances, and he saw time at third base (16 games), second (six) and first (one). While he hit just .210 as a starter, Valaika hit eight of his 13 homers and slugged a solid .457 in that role.
Valaika said shortstop is his most natural position -- important because with Jonathan Herrera's decision to sign with the Tigers, Valaika is the only shortstop on the Rockies' 40-man Major League roster besides starter Trevor Story. But Valaika is ready to fill in where manager Bud Black needs him.
"I'm always ready to step in anywhere -- be it shortstop, be it third base, be it second base," Valaika said. "That was my role last year. I'm just going to expand on it, hopefully get some opportunities at different positions. My role is to be ready whenever Bud needs me.
"At shortstop, I'm very comfortable. Kind of like riding a bike. You never lose it just because I played there for six or seven years. Now it's learning the other positions and getting that same feeling of being comfortable at those. It's important because they don't want to stick me in a position where I have no clue what to do."
Thomas Harding has covered the Rockies since 2000, and for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter and like his Facebook page.