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I have shamefully little credibility on the following topic, less so than I
do on Paul Wilson or on speaking French or on dunk techniques. So
read the following with a salt shaker by your side, and for some history,
check
out this piece from last year
,
or this one
from earlier in 2001
.

(Dear Craig: sorry, man. It has to be done.)

The San Diego Padres are 6 1/2 games out of the National League wild-card
spot. The small-market, traded-two-starting-pitchers-at-the-deadline,
way-off-radar San Diego Padres are within a hot week of controlling their
postseason destiny. They took the first game of a huge three-game series
with the Cardinals to move to within four games of the Redbirds, and they
get the Diamondbacks in their backyard over the weekend.

How did this happen? The Padres were supposed to be marking time until their
new park was ready, an event that now looks like it will occur sometime
during Gary Condit’s second presidential term. Left to play the little
brother to a bad franchise in a football stadium, GM Kevin Towers did a good
job of locking in a good, low-cost offense while acquiring and developing a
host of capable, albeit low-upside, starters. The Padres are third in the NL
in runs (second only to the teams that play in Coors Field and Enron), in a
virtual dead heat for the league lead in
Equivalent Average,
have a better Pythagorean record than all but four NL teams, and are getting
quality work from all five starters, none of whom had a big-league job nine
months ago.

That last part has been the key. The Padre offense was the surprise of the
early part of the year, as Rickey Henderson and Bubba Trammell
stepped in to provide good OBPs in the outfield corners. Henderson has faded
a bit, and Trammell’s playing time has been cut a little, but the pitching
has picked up the slack. Since Sterling Hitchcock and Woody
Williams
were sent to New York and St. Louis bracketing the trade
deadline, here’s what the Pads have gotten from the rotation:


                  ERA       IP
Bobby Jones:     5.67   33 1/3
Brian Tollberg:  3.73   31 1/3
Brian Lawrence:  2.84   31 2/3
Junior Herndon:  2.51   32 1/3
Kevin Jarvis:    2.76   32 2/3


That’s not dominant, but it’s been more than enough to support an offense
that is quietly excellent. Of the ten guys currently getting the most
playing time, D’Angelo Jimenez sports the worst EqA at .255. An
average EqA is .260, so the Padre lineup is within striking distance of
being Lake Woebegon’s adopted children: all above average.

The success of the offense this season is no secret: the Padres lead the NL
in walks, contributing to a #3 rank in OBP and making up for slugging
percentage and home-run totals among the NL’s worst. The pitching staff owes
the success it has had to control of the strike zone, too: they rank third
in the NL in fewest walks allowed.

Earlier this season,
I trumpeted
the "Walk Gap,"
as a
quick-and-dirty way of seeing which teams controlled the strike zone. Simply
put, it’s the difference between walks allowed and walks drawn (ESPN.com’s
Rob Neyer is the person who introduced the idea, at least to me), and I like
it as a measure of a team’s attention to the strike zone. The Padres’ Walk
Gap of +220 is the largest in the NL by more than 100.

While I like what the Padres have done, I’m not making any predictions. The
Padres could use some bullpen help, and maybe asking Junior Herndon
and Kevin Jarvis to be good for four more weeks is a recipe for
disaster. My point, though, is the same as it was a year ago: any team this
close to a postseason berth this late in the season deserves to be treated,
and covered as such, no matter the size of their revenues or the challenges
of their market. The Padres are in the playoff mix, and no amount of Chicken
Little yammering changes that fact.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by
clicking here.