Padres or pumpkins?

One of the bigger surprises early in 2010 has been the San Diego Padres. Picked by many experts to finish last in the National League West and perhaps rank among the worst teams in all of baseball. Eight weeks into the season, the Padres own a 26-18 record and lead the division by a game over the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Padres have succeeded despite a lack overwhelming name-brand talent. Among other things, their pitching has been much better than anyone had a right to expect (125 ERA+ through May 23, as compared to 85 ERA+ in 2009).

Let’s take a closer look at the Padres’ hot start, using THT Forecasts (Oliver) as the basis for our discussion. This will help us understand how they got to where they are now and what the immediate future might hold.

Catcher

Nick Hundley
Oliver: .213/.279/.356
Actual: .256/.351/.378, 106 OPS+

Hundley is splitting time behind the plate with veteran Yorvit Torrealba, who is also enjoying surprising success (.286/.368/.390). In the past, I have compared Hundley to Ron Karkovice and Jason LaRue—guys who don’t hit for much average but who occasionally knock mistakes a long way.

We’re still dealing with a tiny sample (95 PA), but Hundley’s walk rate and strikeout rate have improved, which is a good sign. Hundley probably can’t maintain his current levels (nor can Torrealba), but this isn’t crazy production.

First Base

Adrian Gonzalez
Oliver: .278/.378/.523
Actual: .284/.401/.503, 154 OPS+

Gonzalez is doing what he typically does. He has gone through his customary dry period (hitting .161/.266/.214 in 65 PA from April 29 to May 16 while battling a right shoulder injury) before rebounding to win NL Player of the Week (.444/.559/.778 from May 17 to May 23). Among big leaguers, Gonzalez ranks second only to Albert Pujols in intentional walks. This is hardly surprising given the relative (in)ability of his surrounding cast to do significant damage.

What is surprising is that talk of an imminent trade to a contender has died, or at least taken a nap. The fact that the Boston Red Sox, presumed favorite in the presumed sweepstakes, currently find themselves in fourth place in the American League East, 8.5 games back of the Tampa Bay Rays, may be an additional factor.

Gonzalez has performed in line with preseason expectations, and it is reasonable to think he will continue doing so as long as he remains in San Diego. If he does move, it’s worth noting that he’s hitting .333/.414/.609 on the road this year (comparable to the .306/.402/.643 he posted away from Petco Park in 2009).

Second Base

David Eckstein
Oliver: .263/.321/.330
Actual: .310/.370/.405, 119 OPS+

Is Eckstein playing over his head? Well, he is very short. In all seriousness, his career highs in the slash stats are .309/.363/.395. Those all came in different seasons. Eckstein’s best single season featured a .293/.363/.388 performance… eight years ago. He can’t hit like this all year, and eventually we’ll all be subjected to the same tired observations that pass for witticism in certain circles, but so far, Eckstein’s performance has been a definite driver in the Padres’ early success.

Third Base

Chase Headley
Oliver: .257/.334/.393
Actual: .286/.333/.377, 100 OPS+

Headley is hitting for more batting average and less power than Oliver predicted. Overall, though, he’s contributing about what was expected. Actually, Oliver had Headley stealing seven bases this season; he’s currently at nine. Headley was one of the young Padres I thought would emerge this year, but so far it hasn’t happened.

If nothing else, Headley has enjoyed greater success in 2010 than his predecessor, Kevin Kouzmanoff. Beyond the fact that Headley draws a walk at least once a week, the actual gap in defensive performance has been much smaller than the perceived gap, as expressed by those who thought Kouzmanoff deserved the NL Gold Glove in 2009 on the basis of his three errors:

            PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+ BB/PA  ISO FPct RF/9
Headley    192 .286 .333 .377 100   .073 .091 .952 2.77
Kouzmanoff 180 .265 .294 .359  78   .033 .094 .967 2.81

Shortstop

Everth Cabrera
Oliver: .230/.301/.311
Actual: .212/.257/.283, 52 OPS+

I’m not sure which is more shocking: that Oliver projected such a weak sophomore campaign from one of 2009′s better rookies or that Cabrera isn’t even meeting those meager expectations. It would be convenient to blame Cabrera’s slow start on injuries, but in truth, he was struggling even before he landed on the disabled list.

I have expressed concern that Cabrera could follow the Mike Caruso path into oblivion, although Caruso had miserable secondary skills. The Padres aren’t getting any production from this position, but Oliver didn’t expect them to, so they’re not really losing ground here.

Jerry Hairston Jr., who logged significant time at shortstop while Cabrera was on the shelf, hasn’t done anything either. He’s hitting .225/.268/.271 (53 OPS+) in 141 plate appearances. Padres shortstops have combined for a .208/.270/.277 line so far, which is like their pitchers (.234/.302/.299), only not quite as good.

Left Field

Kyle Blanks
Oliver: .243/.330/.413
Actual: .157/.283/.324, 71 OPS+

Blanks has been a disaster. He is currently on the disabled list with an elbow injury. He is also in the midst of an 0-for-23 drought; going back even further, Blanks has hit .102/.221/.203 in 68 plate appearances (with 32 strikeouts) since April 20. He remains a talented young hitter, albeit one who needs to make an adjustment, but right now he isn’t contributing at all to the Padres’ success.

Blanks’ replacement, Scott Hairston, was doing a nice job (.247/.357/.494, 137 OPS+) before also landing on the DL. San Diego left fielders are hitting .176/.283/.302 on the season. Clearly they are not responsible for the club’s fast start. They are also capable of performing better than what they’ve shown to date.

Center Field

Tony Gwynn Jr.
Oliver: .235/.307/.294
Actual: .183/.294/.257, 57 OPS+

At some point, the Padres must address the simple fact that Gwynn cannot hit big-league pitching. As long as the winning continues, however, they can delay that uncomfortable moment.

Gwynn provides a good (not great, as some metrics would lead you to believe) glove in center, but the lack of offense is a problem. He has a solid understanding of the strike zone and is learning to use his speed. But unless he can keep defenses honest with the occasional well-struck ball, he’s destined to follow in the footsteps of Sean Burroughs, another son-of-a-big leaguer who once called San Diego home. Still, even I, for all my pessimism, didn’t foresee this kind of performance. The Padres almost have to get more production out of center field going forward.

Right Field

Will Venable
Oliver: .229/.291/.365
Actual: .233/.311/.421, 105 OPS+

Venable has exceeded Oliver’s modest expectations. The batting average is almost dead on, but his power and on-base skills have been better than projected. He’s also swiped 12 bases in 13 attempts (Oliver predicted nine for the year). Venable is playing reasonably well, but his overall numbers aren’t strong enough to give the Padres a significant push toward respectability.

Starting Pitcher

Clayton Richard
Oliver: 3.69 ERA, 6.2 K/9
Actual: 2.73 ERA, 6.6 K/9, 136 ERA+

Richard has been a pleasant surprise. He is prone to bouts of wildness and the occasional big inning, but generally has been more effective than anticipated. Among other things, his ERA is a full three runs lower than that of the man for whom he was traded last summer, Jake Peavy. That isn’t likely to continue—Peavy is a better pitcher—but the fact that right now Richard is performing like a front-line starter has contributed to San Diego’s early success.

Starting Pitcher

Mat Latos
Oliver: 3.21 ERA, 7.3 K/9
Actual: 3.09 ERA, 6.8 K/9, 121 ERA+

At the end of April, Latos was 1-2 with a 6.20 ERA. Opponents were hitting .289/.337/.542 against the young right-hander and there was speculation that he might be shipped back to Triple-A for more seasoning. Since then, Latos has gone 3-1 with a 1.29 ERA. During that stretch, he has held hitters to a .154/.194/.211 line and come within inches of a perfect game.

Granted, four of his five May starts have come against the Astros, Giants and Mariners—teams not renowned for their offensive ability. Then again, if we’re going to penalize Latos for dominating weak hitters, we also need to give him extra credit for working into the seventh at Seattle despite pitching with a migraine.

The Oliver projection for Latos struck me as wildly optimistic before the season started (a 3.21 ERA would have placed him 14th in the NL last year), and although he’s matched it thus far, most other systems had his ERA around 4.00. Latos may not be surprising Oliver, but he’s surprising a great many people, myself included. His early-season performance has exceeded expectations and helped the Padres do the same.

Latos is still young (and thus unpredictable) and must prove that he can take down stronger opponents. Whether and when that will happen remain open questions. The answers will go a long way toward determining the Padres’ fate for the rest of 2010.

Starting Pitcher

Jon Garland
Oliver: 4.12 ERA, 4.7 K/9
Actual: 2.38 ERA, 4.6 K/9, 157 ERA+

Garland’s ERA is crazy. The seven unearned runs help (no pitcher has allowed more than Garland since 2007; the Padres as a team have allowed 11 total all year), but even accounting for those, his RA is 3.57—even in his freakish 2005 campaign, Garland never did that. His uncharacteristic performance thus far has played a significant role in the Padres’ fast start. More than 1,800 innings of 4.42 ERA coming into the season say he won’t stay at this level. And when Garland returns to his comfort zone, the Padres may well follow suit.

Starting Pitcher

Kevin Correia
Oliver: 4.14 ERA, 6.6 K/9
Actual: 4.57 ERA, 7.5 K/9, 82 ERA+

Correia is a little worse than but within shouting distance of his projection. He has been reliable, working between five and six innings in all eight of his starts. Correia’s performance is enough in line with expectations that it hasn’t had much impact on the Padres’ early success.

Starting Pitcher

Wade LeBlanc
Oliver: 3.97 ERA, 7.1 K/9
Actual: 3.32 ERA, 6.9 K/9, 113 ERA+

LeBlanc has been brilliant in the absence of Chris Young, who landed on the DL after his first start of the season and whose return to the rotation remains uncertain. LeBlanc sported a 1.54 ERA before getting shelled on Friday in Seattle. Not only was he not expected to pitch as well as he has, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the rotation.

LeBlanc probably won’t remain at his current levels for long (although he shouldn’t be as bad as he was in his last start). As with Latos and Garland, the Padres have gotten more than they could have expected from LeBlanc. The fact that all three pitchers are due to experience some regression may not bode well for San Diego’s short-term prospects.

Relief Pitcher

Heath Bell
Oliver: 3.15 ERA, 9.1 K/9
Actual: 0.95 ERA, 11.4 K/9, 399 ERA+

Bell’s performance at the back end of the bullpen has been stellar. He won’t keep up his current pace, because nobody pitches like this. In what is becoming a recurring theme, when he regresses, expect a few more losses for the team.

One curious aspect of Bell’s early-season success is the difference between how he pitches with runners on and with the bases empty:

            PA   BA  OBP  SLG BB SO
Bases empty 43 .342 .419 .500  5 10
Runners on  36 .147 .167 .176  1 14

His career numbers in both situations are nearly identical, so this is probably a small-sample anomaly, but it is intriguing nonetheless.

Relief Pitcher

Luke Gregerson
Oliver: 3.16 ERA, 8.9 K/9
Actual: 1.90 ERA, 9.9 K/9, 198 ERA+

Yet another Padres hurler who is outpacing his projection, Gregerson has been downright abusive. Opponents are hitting .125/.145/.200 against the right-hander. At one point early in the season, he retired 26 consecutive batters before allowing a bloop single off the bat of Florida’s Gaby Sanchez.

Relief Pitcher

Edward Mujica
Oliver: 4.09 ERA, 7.2 K/9
Actual: 3.43 ERA, 8.6 K/9, 110 ERA+

Despite allowing an alarming 2.6 HR/9, Mujica has managed to put up better-than-predicted numbers. Like Bell, he has crazy empty/on splits:

            PA   BA  OBP  SLG BB SO
Bases empty 55 .250 .291 .615  3 12
Runners on  25 .160 .160 .280  0  8

All six homers Mujica has coughed up have been solo shots. Although he isn’t an integral part of the bullpen, he soaks up low-leverage innings, which helps keep the big guns ready for more critical situations.

Relief Pitcher

Mike Adams
Oliver: 3.04 ERA, 9.3 K/9
Actual: 3.72 ERA, 10.2 K/9, 101 ERA+

Adams had the fifth best ERA+ in baseball over the past two years among pitchers who worked at least 100 innings (behind Jonathan Papelbon, Joakim Soria, Joe Nathan, and Mariano Rivera), so expectations were understandably high. The only thing standing in Adams’ way has been health. That hasn’t been an issue so far, but consistency has.

Adams blew one save in 2009. He’s already blown two this year. Again, the samples are small, but he has been the anti-Bell in terms of performance with runners on base:

            PA   BA  OBP  SLG BB SO
Bases empty 52 .102 .154 .163  3 18
Runners on  25 .333 .440 .667  4  4

Going back a little further, this appears to be a pattern with Adams:

      Bases empty               Runners on
Year  PA   BA  OBP  SLG BB SO   PA   BA  OBP  SLG BB SO
2008 153 .169 .229 .275 11 46  106 .269 .317 .452  8 28
2009  93 .091 .140 .114  5 35   43 .158 .220 .237  3 10
2010  52 .102 .154 .163  3 18   25 .333 .440 .571  4  4

I don’t know what this says other than maybe Bud Black could be more careful about bringing Adams in during the middle of an inning. Whatever the case, Adams is one of the few pitchers on the Padres staff who is not performing to his capabilities. He hasn’t been causing the team to play over its head, and he could improve.

Relief Pitcher

Tim Stauffer
Oliver: 3.68 ERA, 6.3 K/9
Actual: 0.39 ERA, 7.3 K/9, 976 ERA+

Before undergoing an emergency appendectomy that has put him on the shelf, Stauffer was one of the more surprising stories of the young season. With his career seemingly over, the former first rounder made 14 starts for a Padres team desperate for pitching in 2009 and did well enough to merit another look this year. He shifted to a new role and proceeded to carve up big-league hitters like he never had (and, no, that 976 ERA+ is not a typo).

Stauffer’s early success played a big role in that of the Padres. Not only did he soak up innings in relief, he also came through with five strong innings against the Astros on May 9 in place of Correia, who missed a start due to the unexpected death of his younger brother.

Conclusion

In a nutshell, the Padres have gotten where they are by pitching way over their heads. On the mound, everyone except Correia and Adams has pitched better than expected. Several have been better by a lot. Padres fans should enjoy the 125 ERA+ but not get used to it. (The last time a team had an ERA+ that high over a full season was 2005, when the White Sox finished at 125 and won the World Series.)

On offense, most guys are more or less performing as expected. Catcher and second base have been pleasant surprises, offset by the not-so-pleasant surprises in left and center field. The Padres aren’t likely to make any appreciable gains (or losses) in this area. Their base stealing acumen probably helps (they lead MLB with 52 SB as of this writing, at a 78 percent success rate).

Even if the Padres cannot maintain their current pace (.591 WPct, or about 96 wins), they certainly appear to be better than the 75 wins I figured they’d notch this year. How much better will be a function of how far the pitchers regress. They got awfully high in two months. Four months is plenty of time to take a big fall.

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Comments

  1. gdc said...

    With the sons of Tony Gwynn Sr. and Max Venable in the OF I was hoping to find that Kyle was the son of Sugar Bear Blanks but no such luck (although if he were it probably would have been well known by now)

  2. ref said...

    In all the write-ups on which Padres are playing over their heads and will regress, I haven’t seen any looking into the offense from the pitchers. Collectively they have like a .600 OPS. I wonder how much the padres will suffer if the pitchers start hitting like pitchers.

  3. Drakos said...

    Do the pitching projections account for Petco and defense? With Petco’s pitcher friendliness and the defense that the team is playing I would think that you’d see less regression than in an average park with an average defense behind them.

  4. Mark said...

    I think part of the issue at play, aside from the outstanding defensive efficiency so far this year, is that Petco plays HUGE during April and May when the weather is cool downtown.

    Every year the hitters look worse then they really are at the beginning of the year and the pitchers better.

    Should be a fun summer.

  5. Northern Rebel said...

    I think if you took any one of these NL west teams and put them in the American league, they would finish dead last.

  6. DonCoburleone said...

    Northern Rebel I hear that all the time but I just don’t buy it.  Outside of the the Rays-Yankees-Sawx triumvirate there really aren’t alot of good baseball teams in the American League. Maybe the Twins (although their offense is pretty much Mauer, Morneau, and stiffs) or the Rangers (tons of talent but what have they ever won?) are as good or better than any team in the NL West, but thats it. Seriously, think about it, the Dodgers, Rockies, Padres, Giants and D-Backs IMO are all as good or better than the Royals, White Sox, Tigers, Indians, Angels, Mariners, A’s, Jays and Orioles. And they’d at least compete with the Rangers and Twins.

    Now if you want to say that no team in the NL West could cut it in the AL East well that I agree with, but you could say that about every Non AL East division in baseball…  The AL Central and the AL West are no better than the NL West or NL Central or NL East.

  7. Didi said...

    Thanks for the good read.
    I wonder if the defense has been equally good at home and on the road since the offense has been about equal but the pitching carries about +1.50 on ERA and +.80 on OPS against.

    Irregardless, it’s been a nice 8 weeks being a Padres fan and no matter what, this is a welcome change. For today, anyway, best record in NL.

    Let’s hope, it doesn’t fall off drastically in June and July like last season.

  8. Red Sox Talk said...

    I say pumpkins. According to dolphinsim.com (Andrew Dolphin’s sports site), they have had one of the easier schedules in the Majors this year.
    http://www.dolphinsim.com/ratings/mlb/

    Young guys playing over their heads, an injury or two, a tougher schedule, and I sense a bit of a collapse coming on.

  9. Brian Cartwright said...

    The projections account for the the parks the Padres play in, but the pitching is not adjusted or defense.

    I agree with Geoff that most of the success is from the pitching. I did a quick pre-season depth chart of each MLB team, and I referred to the Padres as “Gonzalez and the Replacements”. The lineup had a combined 12 WAR, with Gonzalez providing half.

  10. Geoff Young said...

    @Mark: You raise a great point about temperature. I know one of our readers did some research (unpublished, I believe) in that area. I’m not sure of the specifics, but the gist is what you said: Warmer temperatures lead to more offense.

    @Didi: Good question about defense at home vs away. That may be worth investigating.

    @Red Sox Talk: Interesting site; thanks for the link. One of the surprising things about the Padres’ early success is that it’s come despite being hit by the injury bug (Chris Young, Tim Stauffer, Scott Hairston, Everth Cabrera) and many of the young guys not performing up to expectations (Cabrera, Kyle Blanks, Tony Gwynn Jr.).

  11. Sky Scout said...

    Geoff nice article, but curious why you didn’t use ZiPS and FIP when it’s just as readily available?  Especially on this website.

  12. Nick Steiner said...

    Sky – Oliver is THT’s projection system and there is no evidence that ZIPS is any better. 

    FIP is also a “made up construction” to say, and may or may not be reflective of actual performance.  Showing ERA, K/9, BB/9 and HR/9 would be better I think.

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