The Power of Will Venable

Will Venable broke out a bit in 2013, hitting a career high 22 homeruns while also stealing over 20 bases for the fourth consecutive season. His power/speed combo is bound to garner attention going into 2014 fantasy drafts and auctions. With a middling batting average—his .268 mark in 2013 was also a career high—and while playing for a team that is likely to keep both his Run and RBI totals in the 50-60 range, much of Venable’s allure will be tied up in whether owners think he’ll continue to be a 20/20 player going forward.

His stolen base potential is a matter for a different day (and probably a different person); instead I’ve compiled some information to try to determine from whence Venable’s 2013 power surge came, and whether we can expect it to continue.

Things Working In Will Venable’s Favor

1. The New Dimensions at Petco Park

The Padres reconfigured the outfield dimensions of Petco Park before the 2013 season, moving the fences in at select points. The area most altered was right field into right-center. According to the Park Factors provided by FanGraphs, Petco’s left-handed HR factor shot up to 109 in 2013, a huge jump from 2010-2012, when it sat at 81.

Will Venable, it so happens, is a left-handed, dead pull hitter when it comes to power, and indeed he seemed to make good on the Petco alterations, hitting 15 of his 22 HR at Petco, all to right field. In contrast, from 2008-2012, he hit 19 HR at Petco while hitting 26 on the road.

Corroborating the HR counting total are Venable’s 2013 HR/FB splits: his HR/FB rate was far higher at Petco, where he had a rate of 26.3%, than on the road (13%). His 19.8% overall HR/FB was way above his career mark of 12.6%, and league average for 2013 was 10.5%. Posting HR/FB rates far above league average and career levels is alarming and suggests that some regression is nigh, but the Petco alterations combined with Venable’s propensity for pulling the ball probably mitigate at least some of this alarm.

2. Playing Time

Venable had a career high 515 Plate Appearances in 2013, though it’s just 45 more than his previous high in 2012. Given his breakout year, it would make sense that the Padres give him just as much playing time (or at least plan to) in 2014.

3. Newfound Success vs. Left-Handed Pitchers

A more specific reason to expect Venable’s playing time to increase (or at least hold steady) into 2014 is his newfound success against left-handed pitching. Before 2013, Will Venable was just awful vs. LHP. In 2013, he hit them to the tune of a .276/.309/.524 slash line with a .359 wOBA, the latter besting his complementary mark vs. RHP by .022.

To solve this mystery I looked for anecdotal explanation. Last September, Howard Megdal wrote about Venable’s breakout for Sports on Earth. There were some interesting tidbits from Venable himself, most notably this one, wherein he discusses his revised approach when facing lefty relief pitchers:

Most relievers are going to be fastballs away, and sliders. Maybe more sliders than fastballs, even. So a guy who had a sinking fastball, or a running fastball that’s coming into me, that’s not a pitch that I can hit. I’ve asked guys like Brian Giles, Adrian Gonzalez, how do you hit a fastball that’s running in on you from a lefty. And everyone said, don’t swing. And so, instead of trying to hit that pitch, alright, the guy throws a good sinker in, let’s wait and get him out over the plate, or wait for a slider that backs up. Because I can hit that pitch well.

If Venable’s perception of his own habits is accurate, we should see that, in 2013, he swung at fewer sinkers from lefties, especially those thrown inside.

The numbers, however, don’t seem to back that up very much. He swung at 54.6% of sinkers thrown over inner third or off the plate in 2013 (nearly identical to his 55.0% in 2012), and he swung at that pitch more often as the season went on. Overall he swung at 30 of 55 inside sinkers from LHP in 2013, putting 17 into playing and collecting two singles.

But it probably doesn’t matter too much if Venable is still swinging at sinkers that he can hit (like he says he’s not) if he is hitting the pitches he says he can hit: sliders.

So what about sliders? Well, he swung at a lot more sliders from LHP in 2013, and he was rewarded handsomely, slugging .838 with a .460 ISO against all sliders from lefties. Along with continued success vs. four-seamers, we get a fuller picture of why Venable was more successful against lefties.

But we’re still left wondering how he became so successful, which is what we need to discover if we’re going to have confidence that his overall success vs. LHP — and by extension his power numbers in general — will continue into 2014.

The only evidence that I found to explain that was in the same article by Megdal:

Venable believes his increased power comes from a change he’s made with hitting coach Phil Plantier, which has altered his approach. Instead of tying to get smaller in the batters box, he is now instead maximizing his ample athletic ability within the context of his swing.

“I’m 6’3″, and a longer guy,” Venable said. … “And tall guys need to use their leverage. And I think my biggest attribute as a baseball player, other than being 6’3″, is my athleticism. So that means in the box, you don’t want to be small, limit your movements. In the past, I’d bend over, make myself shorter, restrict my [bat] path. So, being athletic just means standing tall, having rhythm, not having ten things on my checklist, as far as where my hands go. Just letting my body do what it wants to do, and allowing it to happen.”

Aha: Venable changed his stance and swing.

With recent examples of guys like José Bautista and Edwin Encarnación — both of who restructured their swings to great ends — it’s easy to read this and think, Oh, another changed-his-swing success story. And it might be just that. But I can’t get over the differences between the two Blue Jays sluggers and Venable; namely, the two Jays make contact at an above average clip and are among the league leaders in BB%, while Venable, who set a career low in walk rate in 2013, does/is not. And though Venable has walked at higher rates in past years, his lack of selectivity at the plate in 2013 raises questions about whether pitchers will eventually exploit this aggressiveness, which seems to be part and parcel with his new approach.

Still, it’s also quite possible that Venable’s new swing enables him to hit sliders from LHP, and to hit them hard (5 of his 22 HR were hit off of lefties’ sliders), then this is something that bodes well for him going forward.

Pitch Type 2012 Swing% 2013 Swing% 2012 BIP% 2013 BIP%
Fourseam 38.3% 47.9% 15.6% 19.7%
Sinker 40.5% 43.1% 11.9% 16.7%
Slider 46.7% 56.8% 20.0% 21.2%
Curve 43.9% 51.1% 19.5% 22.2%
Cutter 46.2% 31.3% 30.8% 6.3%


Things Working Against Will Venable

1. Age

Some work by Eno Sarris suggests power generally peaks at around ages 24-25 for hitters. Venable will be 31 for 2014, an age by which, according to said research, ISO tends to have reduced by 40 points (i.e. -0.04). Players generally don’t add power this late in their careers. It does happen, of course; Bautista and Encarnación are again examples (though EE had posted some very good ISO numbers before his Toronto-based breakout), but aging trends don’t bode well for Venable.

2. Fly-Ball+HR Distance

Venable’s 2013 HR/FB rate (19.8%) ranked tenth among qualified hitters. For a bit more context, I looked at the other nine guys in the top ten to see where they ranked in terms of HR+FB distance. Turns out, every one of them had a FB+HR distance in the top 25, while Venable ranked 157th, right between Eric Young and Logan Morrison, at 279.6 feet, and it’s been on a general decline since he started playing semi-regularly in 2009 (with a slight uptick in 2012).

Venable’s FB+HR Distance from 2009-2013

But since nearly all of his HRs — both in 2013 and before — were pulled to right field, I wanted to see if he was losing distance on balls that he pulled. So, using the angle/distance tool at Baseball Heat Maps, I looked at balls that Venable hit at angles of 15-50 degrees (i.e. the rightmost third of the field and the first five degrees of foul territory).

Venable’s FB+HR Distance from 2009-2013 on balls hit at angles of 15-50 degrees.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the distance on Venable’s pulled fly balls and homeruns was higher than his overall average, but they, too, have declined consistently the past two seasons.


So Now Then

There’s the evidence, such as it I could manage. Probably no one is expecting Venable to hit 35+ HR like Bautista or Encarnación have doen, but there’s enough here to suggest that he might even be hard-pressed to top 20 again in 2014.

That said, Venable has made specific efforts to better his game, and the results were there in 2013. If nothing else, he believes that’s not an accident.

All of us as players, I think we have an idea of the player we want to be, and getting there is, a lot of times, difficult. And I think this year is the biggest step I’ve taken towards that. And it’s more than having a good month, or a good couple of at-bats against lefties. I know the ways that I’ve improved. I know the adjustments that I’m making, the improvements that I’m making. It’s not just something that’s happened.

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All of this is good, and relevant, and appreciated. The one item that’s not mentioned that has stuck in my head about Venable is the fact that he was a two sport (baseball + basktball) player through college. So it’s extremely possible he’s a baseball late bloomer who might not quite follow some of the average age progressions (or regressions).