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|
|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.
Print This Post