Robin Ventura is now embarking on his second career as a manager. He was one of the great figures in White Sox history, and an interesting case study in player development.
Ventura was one of the great college stars of the mid-1980s, thriving at Oklahoma State University, winning All-America honors all three years of his college career. He had a stunning freshman season in 1986, hitting .469 with 21 homers and 96 RBI, leading NCAA Division I in RBI and runs scored. He followed up with an historic 1987 season, hitting .428 with 21 homers, 110 RBI, and a 58-game consecutive game hit streak.
His junior draft season was also excellent: .396 with 26 homers and 96 RBI, winning the Golden Spikes Award. He was drafted in the first round by the Chicago White Sox, 10th overall.
Who was drafted ahead of him? Well, that's an interesting list in itself:
1) Andy Benes, RHP, Padres, from Evansville University
2) Mark Lewis, SS, Indians, from high school from Hamilton, Ohio
3) Steve Avery, LHP, Braves, from high school in Taylor, Michigan
4) Gregg Olson, RHP, Orioles, from Auburn University
5) Bill Bene, RHP, Dodgers, from UCLA
6) Monty Fariss, SS, Rangers, from Oklahoma State (teammate of Ventura)
7) Willie Ansley, OF, Astros, from high school in Plainview, Texas
8) , LHP, Angels, from the University of Michigan
9) Ty Griffin, 2B, Cubs, from Georgia Tech
Ventura was considered very polished as you might expect and a sure-bet to make the majors quickly. He was expected to hit for average, hit for power, and provide strong glovework at third base. This was years before I did prospect analysis as anything more than a hobby, but a player with similar skills, college success, and scouting reports nowadays would get a Grade A- from me, and maybe even a straight-A.
He signed too late to play in 1988, but went directly to Double-A to begin his pro career in '89. He played 129 games for Double-A Birmingham, hitting .278/.403/.361. Given the power he showed in college, his home run production as very disappointing: he hit just three on the season. However, he showed exceptionally good strike zone judgment, drawing 93 walks against only 51 strikeouts in 563 plate appearances. Although he made 26 errors, scouts were impressed enough with his range and arm strength that he was named the top defensive third baseman in the Southern League by Baseball America.
He was promoted to the majors late in the year and hit .178/.298/.244 in 16 games, with eight walks and six strikeouts in 45 at-bats.
Ventura's Double-A season was decent enough, but the obvious concern was lack of power production, with people worrying that the home runs he hit in college were a result of the metal bat. I remember being concerned about that and wondering if Ventura had been overrated, although I also remember that the BB/K/AB ratio stood out as a big positive. It is very hard to say what I would grade a similar player nowadays; I'd probably knock them down to a B+ at least and perhaps a straight-B. However, knowing how things turned out, it is difficult to say what I would have done grade-wise with a degree of honesty.
Ventura won the White Sox third base job out of spring training in 1990. He did not have a good year offensively, hitting just .249/.324/.318 with five homers and 17 doubles. He did show good contact ability, whiffing just 53 times against 55 walks in 493 at-bats. At one point, he suffered through a tough 0-for-41 slump.
On the other hand, he played well with the glove, part of the reason the Sox stuck with him despite his lackluster hitting. Indeed, his glove helped boost his WAR to 2.0; WAR didn't exist then, of course, but the White Sox were willing to let his offensive troubles play out in part because his glove was solid.
The key thing here sabermetrically is that his strikeout rate remained quite low, even when he wasn't putting up other numbers.
The power came in 1991: Ventura rewarded Chicago's faith and hit .284/.367/.442 with 23 homers, 100 RBI, 80 walks, and just 67 strikeouts in 606 at-bats, posting an OPS+ of 126. He won his first Gold Glove, with the combination of fielding and hitting jumping his WAR up to 6.0. This was the player scouts saw at Oklahoma State.
And that player stuck around for a long time. Aside from 1997 when a broken ankle limited him to 54 games, Ventura was a regular major league third baseman for 13 years. He was a consistently above average hitter all the way through age 31; he finally began showing his age at 32 when he hit just .237 for the Mets, OPS+ 98, though he still knocked 24 homers. He pulled things together with decent seasons at age 33 and 34, but by 35 his skills were clearly deteriorating. After a season on the Dodgers bench in '04, he retired.
Overall, Ventura hit .267/.362/.444 in his career, OPS+114, wRC+ 114. His peak WAR values were 1992 at 6.7, 1998 at 6.1, and 1991 at 6.0. He won six Gold Gloves. His career WAR was 61.2.
Most Similar Player according to Bill James Sim Score:
Among players who spent the majority of their career at third base, Ventura ranks 22nd all-time with a 61.2 WAR. This puts him in the neighborhood with Buddy Bell (66.6), Home Run Baker (65.4), Boyer (63.3), Bando (62.7), Cey (59.4), and Stan Hack (58.9).
The Cey, Bando, and Boyer comps work particularly well, showing up on both the Sim Score and WAR lists. None of these guys were Hall of Famers, but they all were very productive players who had long careers. Indeed, you can make a case that all three of those guys (and Ventura) were better players than some of the more marginal Hall of Fame players.
LESSONS: Low strikeout rates are good. Sometimes you need to be patient with a prospect. Don't under-value defense.