Simple approach working for Venable
Princeton graduate previously had bad habit of overthinking at plate
SAN DIEGO -- At its most basic level, the art of hitting is simple: See the ball. Hit the ball.
Padres outfielder Will Venable does not play baseball at its most basic level. A Princeton grad and a lifelong student of the game, Venable possesses an intellect that can be just as much an asset as his athletic 6-foot-2 frame or his defensive prowess.
But -- as nearly any baseball coach will tell you -- a bright mind used incorrectly can be more of a hindrance than anything else.
For much of Venable's career, balancing intellect and athleticism has been a bit of a tight-rope walk when it comes to his plate approach. His eternal struggle to find comfort in the batter's box often turned Venable into a self-described "tinkerer," limiting his potential at the plate.
"You find yourself chasing that feeling, which can be dangerous," Venable said. "At this level, you can't be making changes constantly and find success. It's just not going to happen."
Through work with hitting coach Phil Plantier over the past couple of seasons, that's something Venable has come to understand. He's lessened the movement in his hands, and his bat stays cocked but loose at his back shoulder. Most importantly, Venable is finally come to a place with his swing where he's no longer looking to make drastic changes.
And why change what's working, anyway? Since the All-Star break, Venable has been one of the National League's best hitters, posting a .348 batting average. His 12 extra-base hits in August are tied for the second most in the NL entering play Thursday.
"Him understanding his swing and how to use it has improved," Plantier said. "Will has educated himself over the last year and a half on what he does, on how his body works and on what his swing should be."
Padres manager Bud Black pointed to two specific results from Venable's efforts -- career highs in two-strike hitting and batting average against left-handed pitchers.
"He's shown he's hanging in there against lefties," Black said. "You've got to hang in there against the left-handed breaking ball. That's usually the test for a left-handed hitter."
Venable passed that exam with flying colors on Sunday afternoon. After falling behind 1-2 against sidewinding Mets southpaw Pedro Feliciano, he turned on a slider and deposited it in the right-field seats for the first walk-off home run of his career.
It was part of a power surge that has become standard for Venable this season. He leads the club in home runs with 17, and he is second in slugging percentage at .486 -- both easily career highs.
"I always knew there was more power in there," Venable said. "We were just trying to find a way to let it out. I think being more athletic with [my swing] was the key."
Though it's often referred to as a chess match, the sport of baseball is not, in fact, chess -- something Venable is reminded of daily. He's not going to discard his awareness, but he's not going to use it as a trump card either.
"You need to balance the two," Venable said. "You obviously need a plan when you go up there. You have to know what the pitcher wants to do and what you do well. But you also don't want to be overthinking things, mechanically."
Black has seen his share of overthinkers in his 29 seasons spent in the Major Leagues as a player, a coach and a manager.
"I've known a lot of bright guys, a lot of smart guys -- it works against them," Black said. "They get too analytical. They overthink. And some of the best players I've seen, offensively, are maybe not great thinkers. They just went and hit. I think Will's aptitude, Will's mind, works for him way more than against him."
It also helps that Venable has seen consistent playing time. With Carlos Quentin, Cameron Maybin and Kyle Blanks all battling injuries, Venable has become a staple near the top of the San Diego lineup.
Venable has also been a second-half hitter throughout his career, posting a lifetime .237 mark before the break and a .272 mark after it. Though he is always in search of consistency, he's been anything but consistent through the course of the season.
Still, Venable's improved approach at the plate bodes well for the future, as do his power numbers and his numbers against left-handers. For the first time in his career, he has a better average against lefties (.284) than righties (.258).
In Venable's mind, his job at the plate has become perfectly straightforward.
"Go up there and be athletic," Venable said. "Wait for a pitch you want to hit, and swing at it. It can be that simple."