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The Padres Want More Will Venable

On the face of it, extending Will Venable for two years and $8.5 million — as the Padres have done today — is a no-brainer. Even before this year’s mini-breakout, Venable has spent four years being worth something close to two wins per year. Despite the decline coming for the thirty-year-old outfielder, he can most likely manage the two wins over the next two years that it would take to make this contract a winner.

But there’s a chance that this will be a great move for the Padres, and a single game in August might have something to do with remaining promise, despite his age.

In that game, Will Venable made impact plays on both sides of the plate. He robbed Marlon Byrd of a home run in center field in the eighth inning. Then he stepped to the plate with runners on in the ninth inning and hit a game-winning blast off of lefty Pedro Feliciano. Despite the small-sample nature of a highlight game, the skills he displayed on August 18th are part of what could make this deal great. And the player’s appraisal of his own game betrays the chance that he’s still getting better.

First, the play in center.

The next day, Venable was modest about the play, wondering if it was a homer he brought back. And insisting he wasn’t a true center fielder. “No, especially playing alongside Cam[eron Maybin], I know what a true, elite center fielder can do. I take pride in playing all three, but I’m not a center fielder. Definitely not. I do the best I can out there, and hope to make plays for the pitchers, but I’m a corner outfielder,” Venable insisted.

And obviously Venable is not the Padres’ first choice in center field. They’ve got Cameron Maybin and maybe even Reymond Fuentes. But, due to injuries this season, he’s gotten 400+ innings at the position for the first time, and he’s been adequate. He’s above average at the position for his career. Dude can play center in a pinch. And that means flexibility and depth beyond the normal corner outfielder.

Second, the home run.

Once again, the outfielder was quick to admit that lefties are still tough on him, whether or not he was able to take Feliciano deep. “It’s definitely different for me,” Venable said of facing lefties, but pointing out that this year he’s had more opportunities to get starts against them and that “the more you face them, the more experience you have to bring to those at-bats, the more success you can find.” This year, the lefty has already seen a career high in plate appearances against southpaws. This year, the lefty is above-average against them for the first time since he’s started playing regularly.

There are still some flaws in Venable’s game, and he knows it. Feliciano is a shorter lefty, and yeah even though “some of his pitches start at you that end up being strikes,” as Venable admitted, “he’s not as long as a [Madison] Bumgarner, where is release point is even more extreme.” As much progress as he’s made, there are long, sidearming lefties that will always give him trouble.

The lefty strike zone is also different. Since the lefty zone extends a little past the outside part of the plate, it can be important for a lefty hitter to be willing to go to the opposite field. Venable is a pull hitter. And he knows all about how his approach and the strike zone interact: “In a perfect world, where pitchers make their pitches all the time, that would be disastrous,” he said. “Luckily, just as hitters make mistakes, pitchers make mistakes. Sometimes you have to focus on what you do well and not worry about what they do well because they are going to make mistakes.” The lefty throwers want to take advantage of that extra strike zone, and yet it’s hard for some of them to do so. “Everyone makes mistakes,” Venable said.

The package — good outfield defense at all three spots, speed and patience against right-handers and mistake-hitting against lefties — is already good enough for the contract. But the Padres have been playing Max Venable‘s kid more, and it looks like he’s responded well, particularly in the power department. Despite overall fly ball and liner distance that’s gone down six feet, and patience that’s eroded a bit, Venable will finish the year with career highs in every power category.

The outfielder doesn’t think he made a real change to his swing plane. “Whatever is producing more fly balls this year, and fewer ground balls, is just a product of my swing that day — I’m just thinking about my rhythm and getting a good pitch to hit, and whatever happens after that happens,” Venable said in response to small changes in his batted ball mix and the overall power. And if he had known what he had to do to unlock this power potential before? “I would have doing that the whole time,” he laughed.

As for the reduced patience, Venable admits that he’s been swinging and reaching more this year (the numbers agree), but just said he was “offering at some bad pitches” early in the season. And after a June that saw him walk just once all month, his walk rate has been mostly normal.

Will Venable can help your team many different ways. “I take pride in doing everything well,” he said, and he does, with walk and strikeout rates right around league average, good speed on the basepaths and out in the field, and emerging power. Even if that added power is somewhat due to bringing in the fences — PetCo used to suppress home runs by lefties by as much as 20% and now might only be suppressing them 6% — that sort of package is still a great fit at a great price.