May 24, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
Clash of the Titans?
Yes, I know I promised more on the "walk gap," but that's going to have to wait a couple of days. I'll be able to do the legwork over the weekend and have more on the topic Monday.
What I want to write about today is the baseball team I'll be watching in a few hours. I'm taking a trip south for today's battle between the Padres and the Diamondbacks. I love that the Padres schedule afternoon day games on Thursdays; even as a freelancer, there's a cheap thrill to sitting in a ballpark on a weekday afternoon taking in a game. I don't get down to Communications Technology Provider Stadium as often as I should; it's a better experience than Public Utility Field of Anaheim, even before getting into cost issues.
Anyway, today's game is actually between the two teams tied for first place in the NL West. It's not entirely surprising that the D'backs are there, as they were one of the four teams considered to have a chance to win this division. The better story is the Pad people, who match the Snakes at 25-21 for a share of the division lead.
The Padres are truly a surprise team; they're not like the Twins, arriving a year ahead of schedule, or the Mariners, who may just have been underestimated in some places (easily including this space). No, the Padres are a surprise because they've gotten performances like a .290/.417/.495 from Rickey Henderson, who didn't even have a contract until late March. Bobby J. Jones, tossed away by the Mets in favor of Kevin Appier and Steve Trachsel, was added for a mere $600,000 and has an ERA of 2.80 in nine starts. Bubba Trammell, a man without a position in April, jumped in after injuries decimated the outfield and is hitting .287/.380/.537.
Not kids. Not even young veterans with upside. These are three players who combined have about 33 years of experience and a $2 million price tag, any of whom could have been had on New Year's Day for a Reuben and a Dr. Brown's. Sure, some people were still hyping Trammell, but at 29 with a career high of 283 at-bats, most of us had slid him into the "it would have been nice" category. Ben Davis, the second-best catcher in the league so far, was in the same boat.
The Padres aren't doing this by getting lucky in close games, either. They've scored 48 more runs than they've allowed, matching the Cardinals for best differential in the league, and have underperformed their Pythagorean projection by 2 1/2 games. Yes, they've been unlucky so far.
It's an offense-driven surge. The Padres lead the NL in Equivalent Average and are second in runs scored to the Rockies. The pitching hasn't been as special: ninth in runs allowed, 16th in Support-Neutral Value Added (starters) and 23rd in Adjusted Runs Prevented (relievers). While Jay Witasick has been a dominant middle man (along with Kevin Walker when healthy), the lousy work of Tom Davey and Rod Myers has cancelled him out.
Can this lead to another 1998? Well, there's certainly no dominant team in this division, so the Padres aren't going to have to get to 95 wins. Much of their success to date has been accidental, and continuing it is going to be heavily dependent on Bruce Bochy making the right choices when people like Tony Gwynn and Mike Darr get healthy. GM Kevin Towers's work isn't done yet, either; every one of his competitors in this division will be adding pieces in July, and he'll have to find the money to get the shortstop and additional pitching the Padres will need.
A part of me is really rooting for them. Any of you who remember the 1998 postseason know why. This team gets some of the best fan support in the country. It's the only baseball team I've ever seen that attracts tailgaters (they're all over the place before games), for crying out loud. Even though this team and its fans weren't supposed to have "hope and faith," the Padres have routinely drawn crowds of 40,000 and above. They don't do well during the week, but their weekend attendance matched up with any team in a new mallpark.
You have to like a team that gets this kind of support. Well, unless you have an agenda, but we'll leave the used-car salesman out of this for now. For one day, anyway, there's a pennant race in San Diego.
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.