A quick glance of the FanGraphs page for last night’s Padres-Cubs game suggests that Chris Young, not Will Venable, was the most important contributor for the Padres. Young pitched five shutout innings (still on a pitch count) and allowed only five baserunners while striking out six Cubs hitters, good for +.254 WPA. Venable, meanwhile, was 1-4 with a bases-empty single in the third inning and a stolen base. That drab performance only left him with -.011 WPA on the night. But one of the limitations of WPA as implemented by FanGraphs is the fact that immediate evaluation of defense is subjective and therefore nearly impossible to include in a live updating win probability chart.
Simply looking at the win probability graph misses two fantastic defensive plays made by the Padres center fielder. The first play came as Alfonso Soriano led off the top of the second for Chicago. Soriano’s blast went deep to center field. The picture (and the video) tells the rest of the story.
Venable’s catch robbed Soriano of at least a double and possibly a home run. According to the WPA Enquirer at The Hardball Times, that means the play checks in at somewhere between +.093 and +.146. Not only should that be credited (at least mostly) to Venable, but that amount should be debited from Young, who was the beneficiary of this fantastic defensive play.
The Padres once again called on Venable to make a play in the top of the third inning. At this point, the Padres had taken a one run lead on a Chase Headley RBI single. With two outs in the inning and a runner on base, Aramis Ramirez hit a ball to deep left center field. Once again, a picture is worth a thousand words (and who knows how many the video is worth).
I feel safe in saying that this one would clearly have been a home run if not for Venable’s catch. The difference in the two situations – top of the 3rd, two outs, nobody on and a one run lead for the Cubs against the beginning of the bottom of the third and a one run lead for the Padres – comes out to +.289 WPA for Venable (and again, -.289 WPA for Young).
The two catches for Venable add up to between +.382 and +.435 WPA. Regardless, Venable becomes the clear MVP of the game for the Padres and Young becomes a goat who received worlds of support from his center fielder. With the 3-0 win, San Diego kept pace with the Giants and Braves, who both notched victories last night. The Padres still control their own destiny, as they will play one of the most intense and important final series of the season this weekend against the Giants. Good defense has been a hallmark of the Padres unlikely contention this season. Last night, it was good defense that effectively saved their playoff lives.