PHILADELPHIA -- Will Venable, outfielder for the San Diego Padres, entered 2013 as a useful but limited player.
His career OPS+ was 107, or a bit above league-average. But his totals were dragged down by a career-long struggle to hit left-handed pitching. He had a little power, but not a lot. And he was a useful defender in right field, but exposed whenever he played center.
Had he simply continued along that career path, the Padres' decision to hand him a two-year, $8.5 million contract extension earlier this month would have been justified. However, what's been so interesting about Venable's 2013 season is how he's addressed all three of the primary weaknesses in his game.
Venable's OPS+ this season is 131, good for seventh among major league right fielders. Part of that is his success against lefties. Venable has improved from his career .649 OPS against them, actually posting a better OPS against lefties in 2013 (.838) than righties (.808). He's already up to 21 home runs, well beyond his career-high of 13. And with regular center fielder Cameron Maybin battling injuries all season, Venable has played a career-high 69 games in center, putting up plus defensive numbers, according to the defensive metrics.
It isn't any surprise that Venable, a two-sport star at Princeton who gave up basketball for baseball, was well aware of the areas he needed to improve. That it all came together for him at 30, later than it does for most players, didn't take away from his belief that it eventually would.
"Once I decided that baseball was what I was gonna do, and I quit basketball, that's been the plan," Venable said. His lanky 6'3" build stretched out beyond the sofa where we sat in the Padres' clubhouse before Wednesday's game against the Phillies. He'd rub his chin or forehead deliberately as he spoke about his season with me, then seem to adjust his answers for clarity as he went, not unlike the season-long process hitters face with pitchers. "I think everyone kind of has that career path that they've cut out for themselves. Whether they get there or not ... I guess all I'm trying to say is, I didn't choose baseball all that time ago not to get to this point."
So in went the new strategies to battle lefties, to hit for more power and to defend better in center field. It's less remarkable that Venable, like the vast majority of major league players, had a desire, and even an idea about how to get better. What's been fascinating to see is how well all of them have worked.
So: hitting lefties.
"I think with lefties, the biggest difference for me has been understanding what I do well against lefties, and that has given me the ability to have more organized at-bats, to swing at pitches I know I can hit, instead of, you know, everything."
Venable had been approaching his at-bats against lefties by focusing on what the individual pitcher didn't do as well, hoping to hit his lesser pitches. He even consulted with some former left-handed hitting teammates, who assured him that wasn't how to improve against left-handed pitches.
"Most relievers are going to be fastballs away, and sliders. Maybe more sliders than fastballs, even. So a guy who had a sinking fastball, or a running fastball that's coming into me, that's not a pitch that I can hit. I've asked guys like Brian Giles, Adrian Gonzalez, how do you hit a fastball that's running in on you from a lefty. And everyone said, don't swing. And so, instead of trying to hit that pitch, alright, the guy throws a good sinker in, let's wait and get him out over the plate, or wait for a slider that backs up. Because I can hit that pitch well."
Venable, it should be noted, has a .960 OPS against relievers this season, with eight home runs in 124 at-bats. The trick of neutralizing Venable with a lefty reliever doesn't work anymore.
"That very quickly turned into me noticing I was having success against lefties, doing those things," Venable said.
Venable believes his increased power comes from a change he's made with hitting coach Phil Plantier, which has altered his approach. Instead of tying to get smaller in the batters box, he is now instead maximizing his ample athletic ability within the context of his swing.
"I'm 6'3", and a longer guy," Venable said. "Certainly not a [Giancarlo] Stanton frame, but a taller guy. And tall guys need to use their leverage. And I think my biggest attribute as a baseball player, other than being 6'3", is my athleticism. So that means in the box, you don't want to be small, limit your movements. In the past, I'd bend over, make myself shorter, restrict my [bat] path. So, being athletic just means standing tall, having rhythm, not having ten things on my checklist, as far as where my hands go. Just letting my body do what it wants to do, and allowing it to happen."
Maybe the best evidence of this new approach paying dividends has been Venable's eight home runs in 242 plate appearances after a pitcher has reached two strikes this season. He'd hit a total of 11 home runs after pitchers reached two strikes on him entering the season, in 940 such career plate appearances.
"There's less intent to do damage, more intent to just put the ball in play," Venable said of how he used to approach that scenario. "I mean, I'll probably strike out more this year than I ever have, strikeout rate is probably higher this year"-- he's right, it is, though the tradeoff in additional production is more than worth it -- "obviously, I don't want to say I don't care about it but I don't really care about it, because being more athletic has meant running into more of those two-strike homers."
As for his defense, Venable believes a combination of the more regular time in center field, which is providing him with better reads, and therefore leveraging the athleticism that clearly plays at the position, has allowed him to improve so much there. In an interview with FanGraphs' Eno Sarris, he'd deferred to his teammate Maybin, a preternaturally good defender in center field, saying "I am not a center fielder." But when I asked him about this, he reflected further, adjusting.
"I do believe that someone like Cameron Maybin is a true center fielder. But I go out there with the confidence and pride, knowing that I'm a good center fielder, also." I asked if that was a 2013 development. "Maybe because I've logged the innings this year. Maybe if you put me in left, I wouldn't feel as comfortable, because I haven't logged the innings there I have in center this year. But every time I go out there or not, I have the confidence to believe I can do it."
Accordingly, he's not surprised that the stats show him getting to balls he simply didn't last season in center field.
"Possibly, and I think there's a connection between that comfort, and-I should elaborate on that comfort, because it's not just comfort, it's letting your instincts to sync up with the game. In center field, you watch how pitchers pitch guys, you see how hitters attack guys, and Dave Roberts does a great job positioning us. It all gives you that extra step or two, helps you to make that play. I haven't been able to do that before, in center field."
So while nothing is guaranteed to last in baseball, it's worth noting that every part of Venable's development has come from process, not just results. One reason it may have happened relatively late for him is just how long he took to decide on baseball as his primary sport. When he attended Princeton, he didn't even plan to play baseball there. So many of the repetitions accrued by other players who sign out of high school, or even play the sport primarily, came to Venable later in his career.
"I think that's fair to say," Venable said. "If there is a, if I'm looking for a reason for it-and maybe it has nothing to do with it, maybe it just took until I was 30 years old to realize it-I don't know. I'm not really sure. I know everybody in this game is constantly learning. Maybe I have more to learn than someone who played more before. I'm just trying to be a sponge, and just continue to add pieces to my game."
His next area to attack, Venable said, is run production.
"Last year, I did a great job with runners in scoring position," Venable said. "And that approach I had last year, when I brought this year, it hasn't worked out, for whatever reason."
When I pointed out that the sample is small enough, given the consistent approach, that it might just be statistical noise, that made sense to Venable. Still, he planned to see what he could do about it.
"I don't know what my numbers are," he said of his stats with runners on base. "Last year, I didn't know until the end of the season, but I felt like they weren't good. This year, I don't know what they are, but I feel like they aren't any good. But especially when there have been improvements in so many other areas of my game, it's frustrating that the thing that I had done well, made improvements on, I kind of took a step back on. Maybe that's a product of pitchers making that adjustment to me, and me not making that adjustment back yet. So that's what I'm going to focus on here down the stretch."
Whatever happens over the final few weeks, Venable knows a couple of things for sure about 2013. He knows he'll be concluding the calendar year by getting married, followed by a destination wedding in Anguilla in December. It's hard to plan a wedding and put in the time to arrive as a full-time regular in the major leagues, but Venable has some help.
"Luckily, my fiancée is all over that stuff," he said, smiling the way an engaged man ought to. "And she loves doing it. She'll give me like two options to choose from, that she's already chosen for me."
The other thing Venable knows is that this leap forward as a player is no accident.
"All of us as players, I think we have an idea of the player we want to be, and getting there is, a lot of times, difficult. And I think this year is the biggest step I've taken towards that. And it's more than having a good month, or a good couple of at-bats against lefties. I know the ways that I've improved. I know the adjustments that I'm making, the improvements that I'm making. It's not just something that's happened."