Venable working to prove it's never too late
Padres outfielder hopes to keep trending upward after breakout '13
PEORIA, Ariz. -- There was something so liberating about last season for Will Venable, who experienced something akin to a professional epiphany at the ripe old age of 30.
The Padres outfielder hit left-handed pitching better than he had at any point of his career. In fact, Venable had a spike in about every pertinent offensive category while also offering solid defense, good work on the bases and durability.
But that's only part of Venable's story.
In order to achieve all this, though, Venable had to first free himself of the mental shackles that he had placed on himself since his big league debut in 2008.
To close the gap on the player he was and the one he wanted to be, Venable had to first stop tinkering with his swing. He had to stop expending so much time and energy on finding that next great fix to his setup. He had to find something that worked and stick with it.
Once he allowed himself to do so, Venable soared.
"The energy we expend as baseball players is so great, analyzing things, overanalyzing things. … That can make it hard on you, and it takes a lot out of you," Venable said. "It takes a lot to grind through a season. But last year I felt fresh all year. Mentally, I felt good and my body felt good."
The only Major League manager Venable has ever known, Bud Black, has watched Venable's evolution from the front step of the dugout. He has watched how Venable, a former basketball player at Princeton, slowly closed the gap each season between ability and results.
"More than anything, he settled in on a foundation he stayed with and trusted," Black said. "He didn't tinker with his stance or his setup or his approach, really. He finally felt comfortable and confident with his hands and feet in the batter's box. All the things you see from consistent hitters.
"When he did that, we really saw the confidence grow."
So much so that when it came time to reflect on his big 2013, Venable didn't exactly go overboard as far as introspection is concerned. "One day," Venable said, thought about it, then swiftly amended his answer.
"Maybe not even one day," Venable said. "As soon as the season is over, you get away from the game but eventually you start thinking about next season. What can I do to put together another good year?"
With that thought in mind, Venable arrived at Spring Training ready to work closely again with hitting coaches Phil Plantier and Alonzo Powell on the less-is-more approach. And while some will cite Venable's home-run-to-fly-ball rate of 19.8 percent last year as a predictor for regression, Plantier is certain Venable has found something that he can carry forward and have success with.
"Experience is a beautiful thing," Plantier said. "He found his consistency. Will has always been athletic. Last year, he brought that athleticism into his swing. Because of that, Will found consistency. The day to day work was very consistent and it rolled over into the game."
Never was this more apparent than his dramatic improvement against left-handed pitchers, who until last season had given the left-handed-hitting Venable fits. His work with Plantier and Powell led Venable to a handful of chances against southpaws. He was able to keep his right shoulder and hip in where he did not previously. He stayed on the breaking ball more.
After hitting .216/.295/.287 his first five big league seasons against lefties, Venable went .276/.309/.524 with six of his 22 home runs against them a year ago.
"You don't feel that you're at a disadvantage at times when Will is in there against the lefty," Black said.
Venable's patience -- and his new non-tinkering approach -- was tested early last season, when he got off to a .206 start in April. May (.222) and June (.222) weren't much better. But, eventually, is all started to click for him, as evidenced by his success in July (.309) and August (.367).
Venable knew he was onto something during a game on Aug. 6 against the Orioles at Petco Park, when he took a fastball middle-in from Bud Norris and lined it into the left-center-field gap for a triple. That one plate appearance sort of convinced Venable that he was going to be all right.
"That was the one swing that kind of stuck out," he said. "Everything that I had wanted to do in the box, it happened for me. All of the adjustments, the swing I had always wanted. Really, it was more about the swing than the result. But after that, I was like, 'That was it … I'm keeping that.'"
That sits just fine with Black, who thinks Venable, now 31, is just coming into his own.
"I think [early in his career] some people thought that Will was one-dimensional. A speed player, a good defender and if he hit a little that would be great," Black said. "But I think he's got the tools to be a total player, defender, runner and hit for average and hit for power.
"I know a lot of players don't have that marked improvement in their late 20s and into their 30s. But with Will, I still think there's a little more in there."