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April 3, 2012
Is Will Venable Underrated or Overrated? Probably.
There is some sentiment in the analyst community that Padres outfielder Will Venable ranks among the most underrated players in baseball. The theory is that Petco Park stifles his offensive game, while Cameron Maybin's presence in center field pushes Venable to right field, depressing his value further.
Is this a fair assessment of Venable? Is he a miscast corner outfielder whose abilities aren't being maximized due to external factors? Or is he a gifted athlete whose baseball skills never developed as well as they might have if he'd committed to the sport earlier in life?
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I've thought a lot about Venable over the years, perhaps an unhealthy amount. In my defense, I used to write books about the Padres. Those books typically contained profiles of the team's key players and prospects, of which Venable was one.
In his prospect days, it was tough to evaluate Venable because he was always old for his level. He had focused more on basketball at Princeton than on baseball and didn't advance as quickly as we might expect a college player to advance. There were two ways to look at this:
Scouts raved about Venable's tools, but those tools produced mixed results. Although he enjoyed a strong full-season debut in the Midwest League, Venable did so at age 23. He was old for the level and should have been expected to excel. For example, compare his output with that of another 2005 draft pick in the league, Erik Lis:
They posted similar numbers in a similar environment (Beloit's home park was slightly more favorable to hitters than Fort Wayne's, but neither was extreme). Venable played left field for the Wizards, while Lis mostly played first base (and some left field) for the Snappers.
Based solely on the numbers, which would you have identified as the better prospect? The correct answer is: You don't identify prospects based solely on the numbers. As Padres Vice President/Assistant General Manager A.J. Hinch noted when discussing prospects at the recent SABR Analytics Conference, “Ultimately, what we're trying to do is not only define what he's doing but how he does it.”
It would be easy to look at what Venable and Lis did (as Hinch put it, “We can all see what he does by his track record”) in the Midwest League in 2006, and reach certain conclusions about their respective chances going forward. It would be easy, and wrong. Venable succeeded that year by being a superior athlete who was focusing his energies on baseball for the first time. He was talented but raw. And despite a lack of refinement, Venable excelled in a league that hit .253/.325/.365. He ranked among the top 10 in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. For grins, here is how Venable stacked up against other select players in the Midwest League in 2006:
So Venable was good, but he was old. Which led the Padres to accelerate his development by having him skip High-A the next year and go straight to Double-A San Antonio, one of the most difficult hitting environments in organized baseball. He responded by posting underwhelming numbers, but rebounded the following year in the more forgiving PCL. Again, though, he was old for a prospect at those levels (the high average age of batters in the PCL is due to the presence of minor-league veterans, e.g., Scott McClain, Luis Figueroa, John Lindsey, and others):
*Batters' average age
Going solely by the numbers (still a mistake), this does not necessarily inspire visions of a successful big-league career. At the risk of appealing to my own authority, here is what I said about Venable in the Ducksnorts 2008 Baseball Annual:
...he's old for his level and he doesn't have the power you'd like from a corner outfielder. He saw some action in center in the Arizona Fall League, but not as much as the club would have liked thanks to an injury. Venable has the “good athlete” thing going for him, and some people offer his late start in baseball as a defense for the relative lack of production so far, but he looks like a 'tweener to me.
After his stronger campaign at Portland, my assessment changed a bit. From the Ducksnorts 2009 Baseball Annual:
His minor-league performance is nothing special, but he has met every challenge he's faced, including a month-long audition with the big club toward the end of last season... Will's smooth left-handed stroke generates line-drive power. He is a graceful and heady runner who played a solid center field in his first extended exposure there. Venable sometimes expands his strike zone and is old for someone just now reaching the big leagues, but he's starting to look like a legitimate prospect. He probably won't be a star, but he could have a Gary Matthews Jr. type career.
Matthews is one comp I've offered for Venable over the years. Jody Gerut is another, as are Mike Devereaux and Al Martin (you'll notice many former Padres in my comps; call it an “I've watched that guy play a lot” bias), the latter of whose unrefined approach at the plate and poor pitch recognition skills were similarly masked by superior athleticism. The comp breaks down because Martin was a complete disaster in the outfield, but his offensive game was a lot like Venable's. Here is how these guys did through their age-28 seasons:
Like all comps, these are imperfect but give us a rough basis for comparison. The larger point is that guys like Matthews (whom Venable has blown past), Gerut, Devereaux, and Martin weren't stars but had careers despite their various limitations. Venable is like that. There are flaws in his game, but when you catch him on a good night, he is something to behold. From the comments on Venable in BP2012:
Venable is one of the Padres' most exhilarating and exasperating players. He can drive the ball to left-center with backspin and make Petco Park, which destroys left-handed hitters, look small... There are very few things that Venable cannot do on the ball field. There are fewer still that he can do with any degree of consistency.
Which brings me to my next point about Venable and players in general. Sometimes when you look at a guy's stat line and then look at the player, it's clear that the two go together like hot dogs and donuts. Other times there is a disconnect.
For example, when Heath Bell first came to the Padres, I'd assumed he was a soft-tosser, a stuffless wonder in the mold of Elvin Hernandez or Yusmeiro Petit. With the high K/BB and H/9, I figured Bell worked around the plate but couldn't put the ball past hitters. The fact that the Mets dumped him for nothing reinforced this notion. Then I saw him pitch and he was pumping fastballs in the upper 90s, which led to three thoughts:
Anyway, the point is that numbers tell one story and personal observations tell another. Sometimes one story corroborates the other, which makes life easier for everyone, but not always. Venable's case falls into the latter category.
I'd scoured Venable's numbers but never watched him play. When he arrived in San Diego, I saw him glide from first to third and drive the ball hard to left-center. I got why people were excited.
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So, about Petco Park. In general, it hurts left-handed hitters, particularly in the power department. Adrian Gonzalez, for example, had a .442 SLG at Petco Park during his stint with the Padres as compared to .579 on the road.
Venable hasn't been affected to the same degree. His batting average suffers, but unlike Gonzalez (whose ISO—which measures the part of slugging percentage not accounted for by batting average—was .175 at home vs. .272 on the road) or Brian Giles (.134 vs. .174), Venable has posted similar power numbers regardless of venue throughout his career:
If that bottom line looks familiar... well, you're probably too invested in Al Martin's career. Here are Venable's career road numbers versus Martin's career overall numbers per 162 games:
This is getting a bit esoteric, but the take-home is that in his prime, Venable is pretty much Al Martin as a hitter. Although Venable may be underrated in some circles, he also just isn't that good. As I've mentioned elsewhere, Earl Weaver would have loved a guy like Venable and found some way to maximize his talents while minimizing his deficiencies. John Lowenstein turned that into a lucrative career, and there's no reason to think that Venable can't do the same given the opportunity. Limit his exposure to lefties (against whom he owns a .212/.289/.261 line in an admittedly small sample), and it's quite likely that his athleticism and awkward hairline will keep him in the big leagues for a decade.
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Venable is one of those guys who seems to be perpetually on the verge of breaking out. You watch him for a while and see what he can do. And you think if he can just eliminate this or fix that, he'll be something special. Because his tools are special.
Alas, tools don't define the player any more than numbers do, and what we have is a player who is flawed in some ways but who is useful nonetheless. But you watch and you dream of greater things. And you are disappointed.
With Venable, it's practically a rite of spring. He comes to Peoria and destroys baseballs for a month. This is who he is and what he does (we're using AB here rather than PA because the latter are hard to come by for spring training stats, which are through games of March 30, 2012):
If you knew him only through his spring training performance, you'd think Venable was a star. But the conditions are different in Arizona, and the samples are small, so you get a distorted picture. We know to take Cactus League numbers with a grain of salt, but someone is always talking about a change in approach and resulting improvement. And maybe in the back of our minds, we suspend our disbelief just a little and think maybe there's something to it. Because maybe there is.
Headed into the 2011 season, Venable made some adjustments:
Venable has shortened his stride and worked on getting a shorter path to the ball than he had before. He's also tried to eliminate collapsing on his back leg, which led to problems a year ago, especially against left-handed pitchers when he hit .154.
Which was awesome until he was hitting .224/.293/.291 on May 22 and got shipped back to Tucson. Venable hit the baseball hard when I saw him there but also got a lot of help from his home park. He hit a more respectable .258/.319/.453 after his recall a few weeks later, but a Triple-A refresher is not the sort of thing you want to see from a 28-year-old starting outfielder.
This spring, we are hearing about more adjustments:
He’s working to eliminate his double toe-tap with the front foot in his stride, which has caused him problems in the past. Venable is also trying to quiet his bat while in his stance instead of anxiously waving it back and forth while awaiting a pitch.
The words offer comfort, as do the numbers. But that sample size thing nags, as it should. For example, if we look for players who have posted numbers in a single season similar to what Venable has done in spring training over his entire career, we find some interesting names:
You may be thinking that it isn't fair to compare spring training numbers to regular-season numbers, and you're right. But the point remains that great things can happen in the short term to good or even mediocre players. Don Larsen throws a no-hitter. Freddie Patek hits three homers in a game. As we noted a few weeks ago, guys go on a tear for entire seasons.
And since Helms is the freshest among these in our minds (and since I already made this comparison on Twitter), let's examine 2006 in the context of his career:
As a point of comparison, here are Venable's spring training numbers viewed in the context of his regular-season numbers:
It isn't that Venable is a bad player (he isn't). And it isn't that his offense doesn't suffer from Petco Park (it does, but not to the degree that some believe). It's that he's that guy who did that thing that one time and now you think he's great.
Late bloomer? Possibly. It isn't unprecedented. Again with my unavoidable Padres bias, a few that immediately spring to mind are Steve Finley, Matt Stairs, and John Vander Wal. It could be that Venable is another for whom things fail to “click” right away, but given the frequency with which players don't follow such a path, those are long odds.
More likely, Venable is what he is going to be. He is a useful enough player if deployed with discretion. Don't be misled by what you see on the field and start dreaming on possibilities. The flaws are part of his game. The fact that he plays in San Diego, which is a market of little interest to most of the country and home to a ballpark that suppresses offense like no other, may lead some to conclude that Venable is underrated as a player. The fact that he is unable to do the things we see him do on any given night with some degree of consistency may lead others to conclude that he is overrated.
Which contingent is correct? My suspicion, as you doubtless surmised from this article's title, is both.