Thinking Small, Will Venable Style

This is a post about small sample sizes and luck, terms that get tossed around so much these days that we may have lost sight of their meaning. It’s also, I suppose, about Will Venable.

Venable kinda sorta broke out in 2013, which Robert J. Baumann covered earlier this week here. But the player inspired more thoughts, so here we are.

A brief(ish) synopsis: due in large part to injuries in the San Diego outfield, Venable set career highs almost across the board. He hit 22 home runs, scored 64 runs, and posted 53 RBI (all career highs) in 515 plate appearances, the most he’s ever received in a single major league season. The runs and RBI are mostly a result of his increased playing time, but the home runs can be attributed in large part to an increase in HR/FB%, which spiked to 19.8 percent after entering 2013 with a career rate of 10.7 percent. As a result, Venable’s ISO also topped his previous career highs, clocking in at an impressive .216 — tenth best among qualified outfielders last season.

I’ll repeat for clarity’s sake, both because of the number soup above and because of the sheer outlandishness of that last point: Will Venable was the tenth most powerful hitter among qualified outfielders last season. Will Venable, everybody. (That two of the nine players he trailed were Marlon Byrd and Nate Schierholtz is another post for another day).

Venable has always made an attractive fantasy tease, because of his combined flashes of power and speed. He’d never been a full-time player until last season, though, despite a package of average offense and strong defense. Part of the reason for that is the fact that Will Venable has never hit left-handed pitching well. As a fantasy asset, his home parked worked against him as well. In Venable fantasy owners had a sort of double-platoon player: one who was best used against right-handed pitching and away from his home park. That’s not a desirable situation for owners to manage.

You can probably guess what happened last year if you didn’t already know. Venable outperformed his career averages in both areas, and by stunning margins.

Career Prior to Last Season 0.253 0.324 0.740 0.162
Last Season 0.268 0.312 0.796 0.216
Career Prior to Last Season vs. LHP 0.216 0.295 0.583 0.071
Last Season vs. LHP 0.276 0.309 0.833 0.248
Career Prior to Last Season at Home 0.229 0.303 0.675 0.142
Last Season at Home 0.271 0.331 0.860 0.258

We see mostly static numbers in terms of average and on-base percentage, but huge gains in power, both against lefties and within the confines of PETCO Park. It’s easy to see why many will reference a 2013 breakout here: he got better, and in the exact areas that were tempering his value before.

As mentioned above, a big part of his increased power production was a spike in HR/FB%, particularly against left-handed pitching. Against southpaws, exactly thirty percent of his flyballs left the yard. As this is more than twice his career average to that point, it’s easy to point towards this and explain it away as luck. But how do we quantify that?

By using HitTracker, we see that of Venable’s 22 home runs last year, seven were classified as “Just Enough” (ones that cleared the fence by less than 10 vertical feet or landed less than one fence height past the fence, according to the site’s glossary). Of his six home runs against lefties, two were Just Enough. Of his 15 PETCO home runs, four were just enough. And one of those at PETCO came off a lefty (hi Barry Zito!) in a confluence of everything we’re talking about.

Here’s another table, then, running four scenarios:

Will Venable 2013 0.268 0.312 0.796 0.216
Venable 2013 W/O JE HR 0.254 0.298/td> 0.724 0.173
Venable 2013-LHP JE HR 0.264 0.308 0.776 0.204
Venable 2013-PETCO JE HR 0.260 0.304 0.755 0.191
Venable 2013-PETCO LHP JE HR 0.266 0.310 0.786 0.210

In the first, we look at what Venable’s season would have looked like if all of his Just Enough home runs turned into really long outs. In the second, we see what his numbers would have looked like if only his Just Enough home runs against lefties stayed in the yard. Then what his season would have looked like if PETCO held onto his Just Enough homers. And finally, what his season would have looked like if his lone Just Enough home run against a lefty in PETCO (hi again, Barry Zito!) was a flyout.

These numbers are by definition worse than the season he actually put up; we are, after all, taking things away that he accomplished.

Full seasons we take seriously, and rightfully so. They matter. But it’s safe to say the baseball public views a player with a .724 OPS and one with a .796 OPS very differently, and yet the difference between those numbers for this particular season is a sample size of seven at-bats, a razor thin margin most would scoff at.

The point of this is not to say Venable was lucky in 2013. You cannot simply discredit a player’s Just Enough home runs, because they still happened. After all, Miguel Cabrera had 16 of them last year and nobody is calling him lucky. There are no absolutes here, as much as we sometimes act like there are. There are no true answers here, as much as we may pretend we have them. Seven plays make up the difference between a very good season and a sub-average one.

By taking various very plausible scenarios into account we can tangibly see how much worse (or less breakouty) Venable’s season could have been. Where his true talent lies is another discussion (covered in greater detail by the piece linked at the outset of this article) but what this means for those yet to draft is this: how would you view Venable’s 20-20 season if it was actually 15-20? How would you view his .800 OPS if it was closer to .750? Or .700? Or .850? Any of these outcomes could have easily happened, and yet they did not.

These are the questions we must ask ourselves — of Venable and of every other player — and only then can we draft accordingly.

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Jack Weiland is not just a pretty face. He resides in Boston with his wife and family (they're dogs) and watches the Cubs at levels not approved for public consumption. He likes chatting on twitter, too: @jackweiland.

9 Responses to “Thinking Small, Will Venable Style”

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  1. evo34 says:

    Part of the issue is that ISO is a massively flawed stat. It is theoretically designed to “isolate” raw power, but in reality SLG-AVG will almost always go up as AVG goes up [e.g., a 30 point increase in AVG is going to lead to a hell of a lot more than a 30 point increase in SLG, even for slap hitters], so expecting “ISO” to be stable as AVG fluctuates is a erroneous. This is because the more balls put into play, the greater the opportunity for 2B and 3B, no matter how little power the player has.
    Not saying you are championing ISO in this article in particular, but I simply think it is time we stop using ISO altogether. It doesn’t tell the information most think it does.

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    • Cybo says:

      When a guy hits a single his avg and his slg are one and the same 1.000. The reason for the correlation you describe is because as a guy’s avg increases he is also hitting more doubles and triples and HRs on top of his singles. Singles help slg simply by not hurting it thus making iso perfectly useful imo.

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      • Jack Weiland says:

        I like ISO, with the understanding that there are no perfect statistics.

        evo34, what metric do you prefer to act as a proxy for a hitter’s power?

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  2. Barry Zito says:

    Hey, what did I do?

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  3. The Stranger says:

    My issue with the “just enough” home run is that it doesn’t tell us anything about long fly balls that stayed in the park. It’s easy to say that a player is lucky because he hit 7 HRs that barely cleared the fence. But if that player also hit 20 long fly balls that were caught on the warning track or found deep parts of the park for doubles, maybe he was actually a little bit unlucky. Granted, I do think Venable was lucky, but the numbers aren’t telling us everything here.

    Hmm.. it should be possible to take HR+FB distance, FB%, and maybe a few other things and figure out expected HR in the absence of luck. What we really need, unfortunately, is HITf/x.

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      Oh hey, stranger!

      I could not agree more. My point here is not to demonstrate that Venable was or was not lucky; it’s to illustrate the thin margin (even over a full season) between a very good season and a not very good season. (That’s why this was about Will Venable but also not really about Will Venable, if that makes sense). We need to take in a range of factors, and a range of potential outcomes when we decide how we feel about a player. Snap judgements are the enemy here.

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  4. Robert J. Baumann says:

    My name is Robert. :)

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