Healthiful, Flavorful, Venable

So went an old team name of mine back in 2011 when I was still using baseball themed puns. Since reaching the majors in 2008, Will Venable has been a reliable platoon bat in San Diego. He owns a career .334 wOBA against right-handed pitchers compared to a .293 wOBA against left-handers. He swipes 20-30 bases a season and can swat a few home runs too. And in 2013, he suddenly broke out in his age 30 season to provide nearly $14 of value to his owners.

His 2013 performance forces us to ask ourselves a question: Is Venable really a platoon bat?

He wasn’t last season. He hit better against left-handers than right-handers, although the sample is obviously tiny. Venable entered professional baseball as a two sport collegiate athlete, having played baseball and basketball. As such, not only was he behind the developmental curve due to splitting his time between two sports, but he also entered the minor leagues at the not-so-tender age of 22. His exciting athleticism earned him a promotion to the majors in 2008, but scouts and analysts described him as “raw” for several more seasons.

Until 2013, Venable was carefully limited in his exposure to left-handed pitching, never accruing more than 80 plate appearances in a single season against same-handed foes, and that was back in 2009 when he was “raw.” He performed terribly against lefties until 2013 when injuries forced the Padres to give Venable a career high 110 plate appearances against them.

This brings us into turbulent waters. We know that Venable is a great athlete and we know that platoon splits are generally exaggerated. Left-handed hitters seem to need more time to adjust to same-handed pitching, but they usually do with enough reps. That could include some bias, since the players who are given plenty of reps against same-handed pitching might have some special something that scouts can correctly identify. Or they might not.

We do have some basic information that we can use to draw conclusions. Venable’s peripherals – namely his walk rate, strikeout rate, power, and BABIP – have been lower against lefties than righties over the course of his career. The discrepancy is consistent season to season and is similar to that seen with most left-handed hitters.

In 2013, Venable continued to walk slightly less and strikeout slightly more, but his power and BABIP rose substantially. His power was up, with a .248 ISO against lefties (career .121 ISO including 2013), and he also hit for more power against righties (.207 ISO compared to career .186 ISO). His BABIP simply rose to match his career rates.

In a lot of ways, Venable’s new fantasy relevance hinges on this new found power. Interestingly, Venable’s average fly ball distance went WAY down from 294 feet in 2012 to 279 feet in 2013. Yet his home run total increased from nine in 2012 to 22 in 2013. By the way, that 2012 distance was slightly better than Jose Bautista and slightly worse than David Ortiz.

One thing that changed was Venable’s home park. Petco moved in the fences and it’s possible that this had a very substantial influence on home runs. In 2012, Petco featured a 81 park factor for left-handed hitters, which means that lefties hit 81 home runs at Petco for every 100 home runs hit at a neutral ballpark. The change prior to 2013 resulted in a new park factor of 109. In other words, there was nearly a 30 percent increase in left-handed home runs from the change. It is important to note that park factors work best with multiple seasons of data, so the new 109 PF may be misleading. Nevertheless, more home runs are being hit in San Diego.

Venable HR

Venable is very much a pull-happy hitter, as you can see from his home runs (his overall spray chart supports this too). According to ESPN’s Home Run Tracker, 2013 included seven “just enough” home runs and eight no doubters. That’s a fairly typical distribution of home runs. He also managed a lofty 19.8 percent HR/FB ratio, up from slightly below 10 percent in the previous two seasons. The new fences likely account for part of the change, but some of it may be unsustainable. A careful owner might expect a HR/FB ratio around 12 percent next season.

Gauging what to expect from Venable in 2014 is a bit of a challenge. A hitter who can provide 20 home runs and 20 steals is extremely valuable, even if he has to be carefully managed. Unfortunately, the sustainability of his power is uncertain. It’s also unclear what we should expect in regard to platoon splits. Has he generally beaten these demons or should fantasy owners continue to use him in a pure platoon role? Will the Padres continue using him against left-handed pitchers, or will they go back to running multiple platoons until injuries force their hand?

Given the crowded nature of the Padres’ outfield, I expect Venable to find himself back in his familiar platoon with Chris Denorfia. That hurts his fantasy value. The uptick in power is probably partially sustainable due to the change in Petco’s dimensions, but I wouldn’t quite bet on another 22 home run season. An expectation of 15 home runs is more responsible.

This is another example of a player whose draft price will vary by league. Some owners will consider Venable to be up-jumped waiver fodder while some will look at his home run and steals and claim him as a mid-tier sleeper. I recommend patience in the draft room. Last season, many owners kicked Carlos Gomez back to the curb in April after a slow start. The same opportunity might present itself with Venable.

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Beggin' Strips Dog
Beggin' Strips Dog

I would have typed this article myself, except I don’t have any thumbs.

John Elway

I guess I’ll join in, make it a dog and pony show.