Will Venable Batting Second and the Pain It Causes My Soul

I’ve been reading select chapters from The Book by Tom Tango, Mitchel Lichtman, and Andrew Dolphin. It is a book about “playing the percentages in baseball”. The chapter I keep coming back to for further reading and understanding is called Batting (Dis) Order and relates to creating the optimal batting order with the players on a team. The reason I return to this chapter is because the sight of Will Venable batting second for the Padres, a reoccurring trend, makes me want to vomit. And I’m trying to understand it all*.

*I’m trying to understand Bud Black’s rationale but more specifically why I have yet to actually vomit. Seriously.

I want to try and distill the chapter down to its basic elements. I think I have a grasp of the chapter but will readily admit that I am not a statistician. Feel free to add insight or correct me where I have erred. I won’t yell at you in all-caps-internet-style.

Before we tackle The Book, let’s wrap our arms around . . . The Will Venable.

Who is Will Venable?

You know who Will Venable is, right? He’s the Princeton grad who focused on basketball and came to the game of baseball a bit too late. Consequently, the Padres have been willing to give him more than a fair chance to make RF his permanent home.

Will Venable has tools. Who doesn’t want a player with tools building a residence in their outfield? Alas, Will Venable is a tool-tease. His defense and speed never sleep but he is prone to painful cold spells with the bat. And he lacks the skills to get on base regularly when he’s scuffling with the bat. And he can’t really hit LHP so he only plays against RHP. Whether this is a function of not getting a chance regularly or reality, I do not know. But no matter the case, when Will Venable gets hot boy do we begin to drool. But then he goes cold again and you begin to drink. And by you, I mean me. But probably you too.

Let’s look at the numbers on ol’ (he’s freaking 30 now!) Will Venable.

The Obvious And Not So Obvious (but still pretty obvious if you really think about it)

When constructing a line-up there are two things that a manager must try to balance.

First, a manager wants to get his best hitters the most number of plate appearances. Obvious, no? Chase Headley is near the top of the line-up because he is good. Nick Hundley and the pitcher du jour anchor the bottom of the line-up because they are bad. According to The Book, from 1999-2002, the leadoff hitter in NL parks averaged 4.80 PAs per game while the eighth hitter averaged 3.98 PAs and the ninth hitter averaged 3.86. These numbers may appear small but they are significant across 162 games.

Secondly, a manager wants to place these top hitters in scenarios where they will see the most opportunities to drive-in runners who are on base. This also seems intuitive but how do you know precisely how many runners are likely to be on base across the course of a season for each spot in the batting order? Trust me, you will know. There are statisticians crunching these numbers and they are available for all to see.

In summation: Give the best hitters the most opportunities and order them according to the likelihood that they will bat with runners on base. Because scoring is important.

Traditional Thinking

When I was a kid the traditional thoughts were to put a fast guy batting lead-off. Place a guy second who can “handle the bat well” – someone who can hit and run and bunt and move runners over. The best hitter bats third. The most powerful hitter bats 4th. The second most powerful hitter bats 5th. One of my favorite players was Don Mattingly. Don Mattingly the first baseman. Not Don Mattingly the douchecanoe managing the Los Angeles Dodgers. Don Mattingly batted third because he was the best hitter on a succession of crappy Yankee teams. Tradition.

In summation: In the past, baseball people thought one way, and in the present, Don Mattingly is a douchecanoe.

Your Best Hitters

The Book says to bat your best hitters in either the first, second, or fourth spots in the batting order. But where do you place each one of those “best hitters”?

The first batter will always have the most PAs but he will also bat with the fewest runners on base during a game so putting your most powerful hitter here is probably not the best plan (in MLB). The player in this slot should have on base skills. The ability to beat out infield grounders and steal bases are nice skills to have as is the ability to walk. But you would be best served with Ricky Henderson. So go get Ricky. Ricky would agree.

The second and fourth hitters present an interesting quandary. The #2 batter receives 5% more PAs than the #4 batter across a season but the #4 also receives more opportunities to bat with more runners on base. The advantages to each of these positions in the batting order basically negate one another. If the two hitters in question are similar put the player with better on base skills batting second and the guy with more XBH power batting fourth.

In summation: Put the best batters in a position to bat frequently and order them based on their respective skill-sets so that the maximum number of runs can be scored.

The Next Tier

I mentioned the traditional thinking of batting your best hitter in the #3 spot but according to The Book the top three hitters have each been placed in positions other than third in the line-up. So who bats third? The 4th best batter? Actually no. The Book suggests batting your fourth best hitter in the #5 spot of the order and your fifth best hitter in the #3 spot. I’m still trying to wrap-my mind around The Book’s rationale on these two placements but it is immaterial to my quest, which is to remove Will Venable from the 2nd spot in the batting order.

In Summation: I’m not a statistician.

The Bottom of the Beer Barrel

The 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th batters should be placed in descending order of ability. That sounds easy.

***

So what should the top of the Padres batting order look like?

I’m going to take the five top hitters, in my mind, who play for the Padres. What constitutes the “best”, you ask? If my left pinky depended on a Padre getting a hit who would I choose to bat to ensure that my pinky was not severed and tossed in a tub of ice to be raced to the emergency room? Choosing a Padre under this rigid scenario indicates without a shadow of a doubt that I think they’re the best*.

* My left pinky is kind of gnarled already, but if it were hacked off  it would scare the daughters, therefore it has value.

So I’ve got the following guys: Chase Headley, Chris Denorfia, Carlos Quentin, Everth Cabrera, and Yonder Alonso (with Jedd Gyorko moving up the list). Here’s how I would order them:

1st: Everth Cabrera SS

(Not one of the top three hitters on the team but his improved on-base skills coupled with his speed do a nice job of setting the table)

2nd: Chase Headley 3B

(Chase is the best hitter on the team. He has on-base skills. He also has speed. Does he have as much power as he displayed last year? I’m not sure. Let’s bat him 2nd.)

3rd: Chris Denorfia CF

(The guy can hit. I don’t know why he doesn’t play more. And #Norf)

4th: Carlos Quentin LF

(Carlos has the most raw power on the team. You saw what he did to Greinke’s collarbone.)

5th: Yonder Alonso 1B

(This could get switched up when Grandal returns. Hmmm.)

Hmmm.

That’s the problem with this line-up. It has a Hmmm-ing effect on my mind. I don’t have a true sense of who’s who or how much of a difference there is between each player.

There are only a few things I am certain of:

  • Will Venable is not the best hitter on the team therefore he does not deserve the most PAs.
  • Will Venable does not have the type of on-base skills necessary to hit at the top of the order.
  • Will Venable has an interesting hairline.

So Why Is Will Venable Batting 2nd?

Besides the fact that Bud Black hates each one of us, I think the answer can be found in Venable’s 2012 splits where the numbers show a level of success in the #2 slot. In 31 starts batting 2nd, Will Venable’s OBP was .409 and his SLG was .534. Those are pretty awesome numbers despite being compiled over a fairly low number of plate appearances (134). Is Bud Black basing this year’s decisions entirely on Will Venable’s success last year while batting 2nd, during a limited number of games? Let’s look at some more numbers:

These are Will Venable’s career numbers while batting second: .282/.358/.486

Again, they aren’t bad. Again, they were compiled in a fairly small sample of 64 games started. If you examine Venable’s numbers you’ll see a guy whose primary function has been as a lead-off hitter (a not so successful one at that) and when not leading-off he’s received starts every where except 4th and 9th. You’ll also see that Will Venable is 30 years old. And if you watched last night’s game against the Cardinals, again, he’s a tease.

Will Venable butchered his first three ABs of the game before he hit a HR in the 7th inning. The HR did not have any bearing on the game, only providing an insurance run (and everyone knows, Huston Street needs three insurance runs), yet everyone raved about his performance. He leads the team in HRs!!!

Who is Will Venable in 2013? It’s still a small sample (the story of Will Venable’s career) but while hitting 2nd Will Venable’s slash line looks like this: .214/.290/.381

By any standard that’s a horrendous set of numbers. But for the player batting second in a line-up it’s downright criminal.

Where to, for the Young (Old) Mr. Venable?

The #2 spot in the batting order is not for Will Venable but that’s not to say he cannot be placed somewhere in the line-up where his skill set can deliver for the team. Venable has experienced success while batting lower in the line-up (again, small sample) and could serve as a catalyst for setting-up the top of the line-up where the speedy Cabrera and the Padres new #2 hitter, Chase Headley, wait. Choosing the unconventional route of reconfiguring the line-up could be the key to a potent Padres line-up becoming downright explosive.

So what will the future hold for the San Diego Padres? I really don’t know. Kyle Blanks is hot and both Yasmani Grandal and Cameron Maybin will be returning soon. For me the water is murky, clouded with uncertainty. But not for Bud Black. Black appears to love Will Venable right where he is . . . and that’s too bad.

***

As stated earlier, I tried to distill The Book‘s chapter on Batting (Dis) Order into an easy to understand format. If you looked at the chapter however, what you would see is a far more detailed account of the events that occur during a game and over the span of a season. In addition to the charts presented by Tango et. al. there are other scenarios open to consideration such as where to place a batter with speed, whether strikeouts should be factored into positioning, and the impact of batting the pitcher 8th. It’s a fascinating (and challenging) piece of reading material.

I contribute to Padres Public on Thursday mornings and when I’m feeling particularly inspired. I can also be found on twitter at @AvengingJM where I write derogatory things about the playing time Will Venable receives, 7 days a week.

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