Five questions: San Diego Padres

Almost all this offseason’s coverage of the National League West has surrounded the record-spending Los Angeles Dodgers, the defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants and the super-active Arizona Diamondbacks.

Almost no one is talking about the San Diego Padres. It is tough to fault anyone for not talking about the Padres, though; they made no high-profile acquisitions (either through trade or free agency), and they’re coming off back-to-back seasons in which they finished near the bottom of the division with fewer than 80 wins.

Do the 2013 Padres have enough talent to compete with the likes of the Giants and Dodgers or will this season be more of the same?

How will moving the fences in at Pecto affect its run environment?

Almost since the day Petco Park opened in 2004, San Diego’s home field has been considered the “anti-Coors Field.” Right field at Petco was where home runs went to die.

Since 2004, the run environment (specifically in terms of home runs) at Petco has been one of the most pitcher-friendly in baseball. There were rumors that Petco’s dimensions were causing hitters to become frustrated, which resulted in some clubhouse issues.

This offseason, the Padres organization decided to drastically alter Petco’s dimensions. This move could be purely psychological, in hopes of improving the confidence of the team’s hitters. The idea could also have been to increase the number of runs scored at Petco, although, the jury is still out on whether the fences in significantly changes the run environment of a park.

Recently, on MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential, FanGraphs’ Jeff Sullivan discussed this issue:

If you look at the data, sure enough home runs went up relative to games on the road… but you might suspect intuitively that with more home runs there will be a lot more runs scored. And what actually happened in those ballparks (that moved in their fences) is that runs did go up by a very slight amount, but it was a pretty insignificant gain.

To summarize Sullivan’s point, more home runs do not necessarily equate to more runs. Moving the fences in at Petco probably will increase the number of home runs hit there, but at the same time it will also cut down on the number of other extra base hits (especially triples) that were a result of the outfield gaps.

The Padres organization seems to agree with Sullivan. The team’s president and CEO Tom Garfinkel told reporters that Petco would still very much be a pitcher’s park:

Petco Park will still be a pitcher’s ballpark, but the changes in the outfield dimensions will eliminate some of the extreme bias. When a ball is crushed, it should be a home run. That didn’t happen at Petco Park, particularly on balls hit toward right-center and left-center.

Expect to see more home runs hit in San Diego in 2013, but I would caution those who think substantially more runs will be scored.

What should we expect from the Padres’ rotation?

In 2012, the Padres’ starting rotation was unquestionably bad. Their starters ranked second-last in the National League in adjusted ERA, 122, and last adjusted fielding independent pitching (FIP), 121.

It is extremely difficult to be a successful major league team without good starting pitching.

According to the early spring training depth chart on the Padres’ official team website, seven pitchers were vying for the five spots in the rotation. Added was veteran righty Freddy Garcia, who signed a minor league deal with San Diego and will get the chance to compete for a roster spot.

Below are each of those pitchers’ 2012 innings, strikeout rate, walk rate and ERA, as well as their predictive FIP (pFIP) for 2013:

Pitcher IP K% BB% ERA pFIP
Anthony Bass 97 19.5% 9.5% 4.73 4.04
Edinson Volquez 182.2 21.7% 13.1% 4.14 4.13
Freddy Garcia 107.1 19.3% 7.6% 5.20 4.23
Casey Kelly 29 19.1% 7.4% 6.21 4.23
Eric Stults 99 13.3% 6.5% 2.91 4.31
Jason Marquis 127.2 16.2% 7.5% 5.22 4.56
Clayton Richard 218.2 11.8% 4.6% 3.99 4.59
Tyson Ross 73.1 13.5% 10.8% 6.50 4.80

In 2012, the league average ERA for National League starters was 4.04. Stults and Richard are the only two pitchers pegged for possible rotation spots who pitched to an ERA-figure below that number. Once Richard’s ERA is adjusted to account for the fact that he made half of his starts at Petco, Stults ends up with the only above-average ERA in this group.

Predictive FIP ignores balls in play and uses the three true outcome components (K, BB, HR) to project a pitcher’s future performance. According to pFIP, only Bass is projected to have an un-adjusted league average ERA in 2013.

So the outlook is not too promising for the Padres’ starters and 2013 could look far too similar to the 2012 season. But there may be some hope for San Diego in the form of three young arms.

For some time, Kelly has been ranked fairly high among the pitchers in the Padres’ farm system. In a brief stint in the majors last season, his strikeout numbers were impressive. However, Kelly’s strikeout rates throughout his minor league career have never been spectacular, so we’ll see if he’ll be able to generate whiffs and success when he is given a shot to be a part of the rotation next season.

Two others who show promise are left-hander Cory Luebke and Joe Wieland.

Luebke had a strong 2011 season, splitting time between the bullpen and rotation, with high strikeout numbers and a 3.29 ERA to go along with a shiny 2.93 FIP. He looked poised for a breakout in 2012, but after five starts he was shut down and underwent Tommy John surgery.

Wieland was a highly thought of prospect coming into 2012 and was given a shot to start the season in the Padres’ rotation. Unfortunately his season, like Luebke’s, ended with Tommy John.

Both will return sometime in 2013, possibly providing the shot in the arm this rotation will almost assuredly need.

How much will Chase Headley regress?

In 2012, Headley’s fourth full major league season, he played like a bona fide superstar. The Padres third baseman set career highs in home runs (31), on-base percentage (.376), slugging percentage (.498) and wins above replacement (7.5). If Buster Posey had not been so spectacular last season, Headley could have won the National League’s Most Valuable Player award.

I’m sure the Padres’ fan base and organization have high hopes for Headley in 2013. But will he be able to repeat his 2012 production?

The rational answer to that question is quite simply, no. Any time a player has a career year, we would expect his performance to regress back toward his career norms. Even before the thumb fracture that will cost him the first month or so of the season, Headley was undoubtedly due for some regression in 2013, but how much?

When studying Headley’s statistical line, the first metric that I looked at was adjusted weighted runs created (wRC+). This statistic gives a park and league adjusted measure of total offensive (hitting) value. In 2012, Headley’s wRC+ was 145, which meant he was 45 percent better than the league average player. This number was more than 20 points higher than his still very solid 2011 wRC+ (121).

Intuitively, I would assume that if a player’s wRC+ increased significantly after a season in which it was already fairly high, then that player would have a wRC+ somewhere between those numbers in the third season; i.e. regression. Thus, I tested this hypothesis.

I found a sample of 172 players, since 1970, who had at least 400 plate appearances in three consecutive seasons, a wRC+ between 110 and 130 in year one and a jump of at least 20 points in wRC+ in year two. I then examined those players’ wRC+ in year three, and tabulated the results below:

Year 3 wRC+ % of Sample
Higher than Year 2 18.6%
Between Year 1 and Year 2 46.6%
Below Year 2 34.8%

The largest percentage of this sample had wRC+ in year three that was somewhere between their wRC+ in year one and year two (when the jump occurred), which backed my hypothesis. Based on this sample of hitters similar to Headley, it seems that his overall production will likely be somewhere between his 2011 and 2012 seasons.

One other drastic change that pops out when examining Headley’s statistics is the jump from four home runs in 2011, to 31 in 2012. This home run boom in all likelihood was fueled by Headley’s home run to fly ball rate (HR/FB) increasing from 4.3 percent in 2011 to 21.4 percent in 2012.

To test how much possible regression we should expect from Headley, in terms of home runs per fly balls, I ran a similar study to the one with wRC+. The result was surprising.

Headley’s 17.1 percent increase in HR/FB is the largest since 2002 (when batted ball data became available), by far, for a player who had a HR/FB rate below five percent in the previous season and 400 plate appearances in each season.

The next largest jump for a player whose HR/FB was below five percent was by Chad Tracy from 2004-2005 when his HR/FB went from 4.2 percent to 14.8 percent.

Headley’s home run increase is unprecedented; thus, my best guess for what his 2013 HR/FB will be is his career average rate, 10.2. A 10 percentage point reduction in HR/FB sounds like it would reduce production significantly, but 10.2 is not a horrible percentage and the reduction would also likely lead to more doubles for Headley.

Expect a very good season from Headley in 2013, but not nearly as great as 2012.

Are the Padres winning last offseason’s big trades?

Before the 2012 season, the Padres made two fairly large trades involving young players. In the first, they sent starter Mat Latos to the Cincinnati Reds and in the second they moved Anthony Rizzo to the Chicago Cubs.

Looking at just the season after a trade is never the best way to evaluate which team won or lost the deal, especially when it involves young players. At the same time, we can ask whether, after one season, it looks like the Padres made the right moves last offseason.

Players Received 2012 WAR Players Sent 2012 WAR
Yonder Alonso (Reds) 2.0 Mat Latos (Reds) 3.1
Yasmani Grandal (Reds) 2.7 Anthony Rizzo (Cubs) 1.8
Brad Boxberger (Reds) -0.1 Zach Cates (Cubs)
Edinson Volquez (Reds) 1.3    
Andrew Cashner (Cubs) 0.3    
Kyung-Min Na (Cubs)    
Total 6.2 Total 4.9

Seven of the players involved in those trades played in the majors last season; five for the Padres.

Those five players were more productive, in terms of wins above replacement, than the two players they gave up. Grandal was one of the Padres’ most productive hitters last season and although he’s suspended to start the 2013 season, the young catcher could end up being the key acquisition out of these two trades.

The Padres may have gotten the better end of the stick in 2012, but how will they win these deals overall?

Some would point to whether Latos continues to develop into an ace, or whether Cashner can becomes a valuable starter or stays a reliever.

I think the deciding factor will be whether Alonso becomes a better first baseman than Rizzo. The acquisition of Alonso originally made Rizzo expendable, and even if their return, quite specifically Cashner, for Rizzo turns out to be questionable, the Padres will still have won if Alonso becomes the better player.

Is the future, at least, bright?

The Padres do not have nearly enough pitching, especially starting, to compete for a playoff spot in 2013. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system currently projects the Padres to finish with 77 wins, just one more than last season. The 2013 Padres seem to be in store for another below .500 season near the bottom of the NL West. However, their organization is not without young talent.

ESPN’s prospect expert, Keith Law, ranked the Padres’ farm system as the best in baseball before the 2012 season. The system was flush with prospects on the cusp and good talent at the lower levels.

Coming into this season, Law and Minor League Ball’s John Sickels both ranked the San Diego system as the sixth best, which is still very solid.

The fact that former prospects like Grandal, Alonso, Cashner and Kelly are now with the club is the major reason why the Padres’ system has fallen a bit.

San Diego could have a strong young core in the coming seasons if some of its pitching prospects work out. Padres fans should be looking past 2013 optimistically, because better days may be on the horizon.

References & Resources
All data comes courtesy of FanGraphs.

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Comments

  1. steve-o said...

    They lost the trade with the Cubs. Cashner will be an average to good reliever when not injured, Rizzo will be an average to good everyday 1st baseman. Alonso doesn’t have any power, never has and will be 26, so its hard to imagine that changing.

  2. Gus said...

    Isn’t it a tad early to declare them losers on the Rizzo trade?  I think Cashner, health-permitting, will be the key piece not only to that trade but to their rotation in general. I’m semi-shocked that he isn’t even mentioned in this article’s rotation discussion, a glaring omission!

  3. John S, said...

    The last line in the table on Headley’s potential for regression should read “Below year 1” shouldn’t it?

  4. steve-o said...

    If Cashner starts, I guess you’re right but injuries are why he never panned out with the Cubs. Given that it’s hard to imagine him staying in the rotation. So as reliever his WAR is what, .5-1.5 per year. Rizzo’s is at least 2-4. Really hard to see that moving in the Padres favor, but anything is possible.

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