September 29, 2014
The Padres' Sad Team Leaders
I remember the 1987 Cardinals team-leader card, where on the back it said the most home runs hit by any Cardinal the previous season was 13, by Andy Van Slyke. That was absurd, and it was so absurd that I had to explore further, and upon further exploration I learned my first lesson in team building: The Cardinals, with that artificial turf, were built for speed. They stole 262 bases. They didn't need to hit home runs, except inasmuch as they finished with the fewest runs scored in the National League and a .600 OPS. That was a fun team-leader card. It was an educational team-leader card.
Next year's Padres team-leader card is not going to be as fun. It'll be dispiriting, it'll be disorienting, and if it teaches you anything it'll be how to spell "Gyorko." But there is fun to be had with it, and this is the Fun Fact portion of this post:
Each of those 49 players would have been the Padres' Triple Crown winner. Forty-nine players would have led the Padres in all three categories. It's easy to do, whether you're
I love Fun Facts, but I don't love all facts that are fun. A Fun Fact, in my observation, usually checks multiple boxes, as this one (which was inspired by Ryan Kaltenbach, and powered by the Play Index at Baseball Reference) does:
It usually tells you something about the era. In this case, a team Triple Crown winner hitting .268 with 15 homers and 51 RBIs (and note that the Padres got these achievements out of three separate players: Seth Smith, Yasmani Grandal, and Jedd Gyorko) would have been not just incredible, improbable, but more or less impossible through most of the years of our baseball lifetimes. In 2006, just eight years ago, 100 players matched all three totals. In 1994—in 1994!!!—there were 46 such player seasons. The fact that the Padres have team leaders hitting .268 with 15 homers and 51 RBIs tells us just how far offense has sunk, and the fact that we see this primarily as a LOLPadres moment (partially justified, of course) tells us how our perceptions always lag, and we've always got a few brain cells that are a few years behind.
It often tells you something about the subject that you didn't quite know. You knew that the Padres didn't have a good offense already, and you might have sensed that they had such a bad offense that this sort of thing would be possible, but what you might not have realized is: Practically nobody on the Padres played a full season. Seth Smith is the only hitter who managed to qualify for the batting title. He did it by 18 plate appearances.
The Padres, then, were quietly the unluckiest team in the National League. Through early August, at least, they had the most disabled list days and the highest percentage of salary lost to injury of any NL team, behind only the Rangers in all of baseball. It was easy to miss this fact because there were no expectations for the Padres in the first place. But when you compare the experience of cheering for the Padres this year (one qualified hitter) with cheering for the Royals (eight, along with Mike Moustakas, who came up just two plate appearances short), you realize what a different sport it was in San Diego.
It usually tells a lie, too. Not a malicious lie, not something that pivots on some fundamental untruth, but more like a magician's patter: don't look at that thing, focus on this thing. In this case, the underemphasized detail is Petco Park. The Padres weren't totally without good hitters. Seth Smith would have been, by some adjusted measures, the second most productive hitter on the Rockies, who have five Padres Triple Crowners. Further, when's the last time you heard us talk about batting average and RBIs on this site? That's the dead giveaway: This is a Fun Fact.
But we accept the lie because it sparkles up a core truth, one that is worth knowing and one that we might not otherwise pick out of a warehouse of facts that are merely notable. In this case, the core truth is that the Padres' offense was really, truly horrendous, one for the ages. They had the worst True Average in the majors and the worst OPS+. They had the worst road OPS in baseball, and that's without ever playing a single road game at Petco Park. (They even had the fourth-worst baserunning in baseball.) You might have tried to interrupt me, midway through this, probably in the qualified-for-the-batting-title part, to say, "yeah, that's because they traded two of their best players at the deadline." Oh, sure. They traded Chase Headley and Chris Denorfia. Headley was hitting .229 with seven homers and 32 RBIs at the time of the late-July trade. Denorfia was hitting .242 with one homer and 16 RBIs. Those were their two tradeable assets! Those guys!
The Padres had, then, the worst offense in baseball, in the least hitter-friendly ballpark in baseball, in the most pitcher-friendly era of Seth Smith's lifetime. And that, ultimately, is where this Fun Fact takes us: There are basically three things that affect a team's offensive bottom line: their ability, their home park, and their sport. All conspired to make the Padres fail to score runs, and the Padres did, indeed, fail to score runs. They could have fought it, but in this life you usually need one ally. The Padres had no allies. They were the weakest pig in the litter, and they simply died of it.