May 9, 2014
Painting the Black
Go Fix Yourself, San Diego
Near the end of Geoff Young's Padres essay in Baseball Prospectus 2014, he concludes that San Diego's recent struggles "might indicate a larger problem, but it also could be terrible luck. Without closer scrutiny than publicly available information permits, it's impossible to know."
Young was writing about the Padres' poor results on recent long-term extensions (more on that here), but he could have been addressing the team's play since its surprise run in 2010. Three seasons have passed, during which San Diego has changed franchise players and general managers, yet the Padres have been unable to put it all together. This was supposed to be, if not the year, at least a preview. Josh Byrnes added the risky Josh Johnson to a promising, if largely untested rotation, and kept pending free-agent Chase Headley so his lineup could pass for tolerable. So far, the pitching staff has succeeded, even without the injured Johnson. The offense, however, has busted.
In fact, San Diego has the worst offense in the majors. The Rockies, the league's best hitting crew, have almost registered a higher slugging percentage (.502) than the Padres' OPS (.592). The Friars are tied for last in walk rate, and have an ISO similar to the punchless Royals. Even park-adjusted numbers produce a bad odor, as the Padres' .219 True Average is more than 10 points below the worst offense on record since 1950; the 1981 Blue Jays, who were led in plate appearances by Alfredo Griffin, owner of a .243 on-base percentage.
Those Blue Jays averaged 3.1 runs per game; these Padres are averaging 2.6, and were shut out for a sixth time on Wednesday afternoon. Things are so bad that the home broadcast's Keys to the Game overlays have reached new levels of banality:
It takes a total team effort to hit this poorly. Bud Black has sent six hitters to the plate more than 100 times apiece; two of them have reached base more than 30 percent of the time. Those two? Chris Denorfia and Seth Smith, who seldom bats without the platoon advantage. The Padres have three of the seven least-productive team positions in the majors this season, in first base, second base, and third base. The only other team with multiple positions ranked that low are the Cardinals, who are experiencing issues at second base and in right field.
Some of the blame for the Padres' offensive struggles can be credited to injuries. Cameron Maybin (torn biceps) missed most of April, Chase Headley has missed all of May, and Carlos Quentin (knee) hasn't played at all. But the troubles go beyond those banged up; San Diego's healthy players have underperformed something fierce. To borrow a trick from Zachary Levine, here's how the nine players with the most plate appearances have performed, with their closest PECOTA percentile posted alongside for comparison:
Six of the nine Padres to bat the most often have played to their 10th percentile, and five of those have played below it. That kind of collective badness is hard to fathom, especially since it's coming from otherwise established players like Headley and Venable. Were it not for Grandal, every player in the table above who had previously played for the Padres would be underperforming PECOTA's projections. Married with the overall numbers, that pattern could spell bad news for hitting coach Phil Plantier.
Plantier has held the position since 2012, and while nobody on the outside can speak to the quality of his work, it wouldn't be too surprising to see him take the fall. Unfortunate as it is, hitting and pitching coaches tend to be the first passengers cast overboard when well-laid plans go left. The dirty little secret is that whether Plantier is retained or fired, the Padres offense ought to improve. San Diego might lack the bats to be a top-10 offense, or even an above-average unit, but it shouldn't be the worst offense of the past 60 years.
Even so, that the Padres have slumped this long and this hard does raise questions. Black's explanation, that his team is pressing, makes sense, but does little to ease concerns about the offense's long-term viability. What's to stop San Diego's hitters from returning to the dumps the next time they incur a few bad weeks? Besides, the numbers don't necessarily spell out a team that's expanding its zone, though obviously not all aspects of a good approach can be captured in a single metric.
Byrnes, for his part, is about to get busy. He designated Xavier Nady, the club leader in home runs, for assignment earlier in the week, which allowed him to recall Kyle Blanks from the minors. Quentin and Headley should return in the coming days, meaning Byrnes needs to clear two spots on the 25-man roster. Nick Hundley, whom the Padres have shopped around the league, could be on his way out. Blanks seems like the other Padre most likely to lose his place in the coming days, if only because Yonder Alonso is out of options and San Diego would lack a backup infielder if it demoted Alexi Amarista.
No matter how the roster shakes out, the Padres will need to ask tough questions about their core heading forward, such as whether they can win with Alonso as their primary first baseman, how they'll replace Headley, and why the Venable and Gyorko extensions have taken immediate turns for the worst. To paraphrase Young: the Padres' offensive struggles might indicate a larger problem, but it also could be terrible luck. Without closer scrutiny than publicly available information permits, it's impossible to know.