Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Is Will Venable vulnerable to regression?

Being an East Coast writer sometimes makes it difficult to appreciate or notice players from the other coast. After all, most of their games are starting just when I am thinking about going to bed. I would like to think that I keep track of what's going on pretty well still. But I question that when looking at Will Venable's 2013 season and being surprised at the numbers I saw there. Once discovered, the obvious question is whether he can repeat those numbers.
First off, let me say that I have always rooted for Will Venable. I have a soft spot for the offspring of players that I have watched in the past. I saw Max Venable, Will's dad, play and that automatically makes me interested in Will. More on Max in a second.
J. Baumann of has already written a fairly comprehensive piece on Venable and strongly believes in regression for 2014. I wish I had not read it because I like to make up my own mind. But many of you might be like me and will be surprised by Venable's 2013 season, so let's look at some of the numbers.
So what were the surprises I found with Will Venable's season? The first thing I noticed were the stolen bases. I had no idea he was so good at doing that. Venable has stolen more than twenty bases in a season for four straight years. Not only that, he is very good at it.
Venable's success rate of stealing bases for his career is 81.8%. That is fantastic. What I love is that his father was good at stealing bases too. Despite Max being more of a utility player, he stole at a 78% success rate. Combine them both and they, as a family, have been successful for 80.5% of the time stealing bases. I wondered if that was some kind of record (minimum 200 attempts).
My first look was at the two Tim Raines. And stopped dead there as that family's combined percentage was like 84.5% or something. But still, the Venables have done alright stealing bases.
The other thing to look at with Will Venable was his sudden power surge in 2013. In Venable's first five years, he hit 45 homers in 1,582 plate appearances or 2.8%. He hit 22 in just 481 plate appearances in 2013 or  4.6%. That's quite a jump.
The jump is also reflected in his home run to fly ball rate. For his first five years combined, his rate was 10.7%. That figure jumped to 19.8%. Baumann explains part of that (at least) by the change in the dimensions of Petco Field where the right field fences were brought in before the 2013 season. All but one of Venable's homers were pulled to right field.
Baumann also focuses on Venable's success against left-handed pitchers in 2013, something he was abysmal at for most of his career as a left-handed batter. In that piece, Baumann buys somewhat Venable's account of his new stance and the work he had done with hitting coach, Phil Plantier. But you have to wonder if that new found success was the fluke or what the five years before of futility against left-handers more indicative of what to expect moving forward.
The thing about Venable is the contradictions. For the past three seasons, Venable has had a high line drive rate, so you would think his batting average would be higher than his high of in the .260s range. He also has a moderately high BABIP rate for the last three years as you would expect from those line drives. But why isn't the average higher?
You would think that, since he pulls the ball so often, his ground ball BABIP would be low, but it is fairly healthy at .242.
The low average, then, must be in part because he swings at a lot of balls out of the strike zone (37% in 2013) and his high strikeout rate (22.9%). If he was more selective, he would have a better chance at more quality contact.
I can see why Will Venable would be excited about what occurred last year. From appearances, something clicked for him in July and after a putrid first half, he had an wOBA of .388 in the second half good for an OPS in that half of over .900.
But a lot of the fluctuation seemed to be tied to his BABIP, which was extremely high (even for him) at .375 for the half. And he regressed in September after BABIPs through the roof in July and August. Much of the rest of his numbers were similar. He hit eleven homers in the first half and eleven again in the second. He struck out just as much in the first as in the second.
Venable is a nice player overall. He is a good base runner and plays center field very well. He will give you a wins above replacement somewhere between two and three wins. But his lack of plate discipline will not change much and even seems to be heading in the wrong direction. I root for him for the reasons stated above. But I don't see 2014 being as good for him as 2013. But that's why they play the games.

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