The 1970 San Diego Padres

Nine of these things belong together. Nine of these things are kind of the same. But one of these things just doesn’t belong here. (Now it’s time to play our game …)

99, 172, 96, 102, 112, 99, 78, 64, 120, 75

And while we’re at it, kids, how about this series of 10 numbers:

10, 3, 8, 8, 9, 7, 12, 11, 8, 10

That’s right, the outliers could hardly be more obvious: the “172” in the first series, and the “3” in the second. Now, just what is it that these figures represent?

The first series is the team home run total for the San Diego Padres in each of their first 10 seasons (1969 through 1978), and the second is the Padres’ rank in team homers among the 12 National League teams in each of those years. The Padres, a young expansion team not known for robust hitting, and playing in a notoriously difficult home run park, were perennially near the bottom of the league in home run production.

Except in 1970.

In 1970, the second-year Padres blasted 172 home runs, third-best in the league, and vastly more than they hit in any other season in that era. Indeed, those 172 dingers weren’t only more than any other Padres team produced in that era: Those 172 dingers in 1970 remain the highest home run total any San Diego Padres team has ever hit, even through the silly-ball 1990s and 2000s.

How bizarre was that?

Among the nine Padres hitters with at least 300 plate appearances in 1970, five achieved career highs in home runs that year, another tied his career best, and two were just one homer shy of their career high. The parade of personal bests was led by center fielder Clarence “Cito” Gaston, delivering one of the most extraordinary fluke seasons of all time, hitting .318 with 29 home runs and a 144 OPS+ (his next-best totals were, respectively, .269, 17, and 99).

And it isn’t as though Jack Murphy Stadium played against type and became homer-friendly in 1970: The Padres that year had to do the heavy lifting all by themselves, managing just 68 home runs in San Diego while bludgeoning 104 on the road. The total of 104 road homers led not only the National League, but led every team in the majors by a wide margin; the 1970 Padres were a seriously prodigious power-hitting ball club.

But only in 1970; immediately the following year they would revert to their standard meek-and-mild mode. In the seasons of 1969 and 1971 combined, the most home runs the Padres hit in any month was 21, while in 1970 they had months of blasting 24 (August), 31 (September), 34 (July), and 47 (May). In that loud month of May 1970, the Padres had a stretch in which they launched 16 homers in six games (May 5-9), and followed it up with another binge in which they exploded for 16 in nine games (May 19-26).

Right-wing bias

The 1970 Padres achieved this lusty production despite featuring a most oddly constructed roster. GM Buzzie Bavasi had eschewed even a cursory attempt at left-right balance: The Padres sent a left-handed batter to the plate just 12 per cent of the time, compared to the major league average of 36 per cent.

Not just most, but all of the Padres’ heaviest hitters were right-handed: Gaston, first baseman Nate Colbert (38 homers, 125 OPS+), right fielder Ollie Brown (23, 121), left fielder Al Ferrara (13, 122), and third baseman Ed Spiezio (12, 127). The biggest “threats” they had from the left side were shortstop-third baseman Steve Huntz, a switch-hitter who put up a .208/.342/.319 line in 344 left-handed plate appearances, and backup first baseman Ramon Webster, whose OPS+ was 81 in 127 times at bat.

This extreme imbalance invited opposing managers to minimize opportunities for the Padres’ right-handed power to face left-handed pitching; San Diego faced a southpaw just 20 per cent of the time, compared to the major league average of 30 per cent. Gaston hit .320/.366/.623 in his limited chances against lefties, with Colbert at .281/.349/.596 and Brown at .363/.387/.602; clearly the Padres would have derived distinct benefit from an improved capacity to keep opponents honest.

An empty table

But this was a minor flaw compared with the Padres’ larger offensive weakness, which was the utter ineffectiveness of the “table-setting” supporting cast. Their leadoff hitters (generally second baseman Dave Campbell and utility infielder Jose Arcia) combined for a ghastly .213/.273/.319 line, while their No. 2 hitters (mostly Huntz and Campbell) were nearly as bad at .210/.295/.327. Leading off in the first inning, the Padres produced at an appalling .154/.222/.228 rate, yielding an OPS+ of 26 compared with major league average performance in that situation.

Thus despite all that thunder in the middle of the order, the Padres’ team OPS+ was just 98. They were sixth in the league in slugging but 10th in batting average and 11th in OBP, and third in the league in homers but 11th in runs scored.

Making the least of it

Even with its inefficiency, the raucous 1970 Padres’ offense was quite good for a second-year expansion team in the pre-free agency era. That OPS+ of 98 was significantly better than that presented by any of their three cohort sophomore ball clubs in 1970; the Expos, Royals, and Brewers had OPS+ figures of 92, 89 and 93 respectively.

But the 1970 Padres presented a second-order inefficiency: Their Pythagorean record was 70-92—tied with Kansas City for the best such mark among the second-season expansion clubs—but the Padres underperformed, coming in with an actual record of 63-99, the worst among the second-season expansion clubs. As though to rub it in, the Expos meanwhile were overperforming, finishing a full 10 games better than the Padres at 73-89 despite a Pythag of 69-93.

Speaking of personal bests

Spiezio, the Padres’ semi-regular third baseman, was a hitter with pretty good power but spent most of his career struggling to hit for a decent average. But not in 1970; after a slow start, he suddenly busted out with a .354 average in May. He then missed most of June with an injury, but came back to continue his hot hitting until the season’s final few weeks. Spiezio’s overall batting average in 1970 was .285 (his next-best would be .234); his 1970 OBP was .373 (next-best, .313), and his 1970 OPS+ was 127 (next-best, 94). Ted Williams published his treatise The Science of Hitting in 1970, and Spiezio immediately became a disciple; as Major League Baseball 1971 put it, he “treats Ted Williams’ batting textbook like a sacred scroll.”

The Padres’ primary catcher in 1970 was Chris Cannizzaro, a 32-year-old veteran long known for solid defense and modest hitting. But in 1970 he got too got into the swing of things in San Diego, and delivered career bests in runs, hits, RBIs, walks, BA, OBP and SLG. In the four other seasons in which Cannizzaro had over 200 plate appearances, his OPS+ marks were 86, 75, 68 and 46; in 1970 it was 104.

And even one of the Padres’ pitchers found 1970 to his special liking. Six-foot-five-inch left-hander Danny Coombs was a 28-year-old marginal major leaguer who’d been struggling in the Houston organization for many years, never managing to make it through as many as 50 big league innings in a season. Then out of the blue with the Padres in 1970 Coombs had a fine year, delivering 188 innings with an ERA+ of 120. He would quickly implode in 1971; outside of 1970 Coombs’ career ERA+ was 73 in 205 innings.

This one’s just strange

Ron Herbel was a soft-tossing journeyman right hander whom the Giants had found reasonably useful for six years. They’d deployed him as a starter/reliever swingman, and then he receded into a last-man-in-the-bullpen mop-up role. What he’d never been was anything resembling an ace.

Nevertheless, when the 32-year-old Herbel was acquired by San Diego for the 1970 season, Padres manager Preston Gomez figured it would be just the ticket to make Herbel his fireman. On Opening Day, Gomez had Herbel close out a victory; by mid-May Herbel had six saves and a 3.22 ERA. But as the season wore on, Herbel’s effectiveness faded.

So Gomez deployed Herbel in fewer high-leverage situations, but trotted him out again and again in all manner of multi-purpose relief assignments. Never before had Herbel appeared in as many as 50 games in a season, or come close to the league leaders in that category. But by the end of August in 1970, Herbel was the workhorse in 64 of San Diego’s 132 games. The Padres then dealt him to the Mets, where he appeared in 12 more before the season was over, giving him a total of 76 league-leading games (and 124 innings).

The following year Herbel would appear in just 25 games, pitching less than well, and his major league career was over.

Microcosm

In closing, the following handful of games might serve as an amplified symbol of the Padres’ 1970 season.

April 15, at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. On the strength of home runs by Gaston (solo) and Colbert (3-run), the Padres jump out to a 4-2 lead in the third inning. But San Diego starter Mike Corkins is unable to hold the advantage. Colbert hits another homer, a solo shot in the sixth, to tie the game, but in the bottom of the seventh Herbel, in relief of Corkins, surrenders back-to-back singles to Rico Carty and Orlando Cepeda, scoring two runs. In the ninth, the Padres put runners on second and third with one out, but can’t drive them in, and the Braves hang on to win 7-5.

May 8, at Parc Jarry in Montreal, the second game of a day/night doubleheader. A three-run homer by Colbert in the fourth inning, and then solos in the fifth by second-string catcher Bob Barton and leadoff man Dave Campbell build a 5-2 lead for the Padres. However, starting pitcher Al Santorini can’t get through the fifth, allowing the Expos to tie it. In the seventh, relief pitcher Dave Roberts, batting for himself, belts a homer of his own to put the Padres ahead 6-5, but an unearned run off Roberts in the bottom of the eighth (the key play a muffed fly by left fielder Jerry Morales) reties the game.

The Padres strand runners in the ninth, 10th (bases loaded), and 11th, but don’t score. In the bottom of the 11th, Montreal scores off reliever Gary Ross with a walk, a single, and a wild pitch.

May 31, at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Against Cubs ace Ferguson Jenkins, home runs are whacked by Colbert (seventh inning), Barton (eighth), and Ferrara (ninth). But all three are solo shots, and otherwise the Padres produce just two singles and two walks, and lose 7-4.

June 27, at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. The Padres clout four homers off of Don Sutton (Colbert in the second, Campbell in the third, and Ferrara and Colbert back-to-back in the eighth). But the rest of the San Diego offense consists of a single and three walks. A four-run Dodger rally off Herbel in the seventh, including two singles, two walks, a sacrifice fly, and a two-out, two-run-scoring fly ball dropped by Ollie Brown seals the 7-5 win for L.A.

July 3, again at The Launching Pad in Atlanta, the second game of a doubleheader. San Diego bombs Phil Niekro for four home runs (by Huntz, Brown, Ramon Webster, and shortstop Tommy Dean), but all are solo, and the Braves win easily, 9-4.

July 10, at home against the Dodgers. Trailing 9-2 in the bottom of the ninth against starter Bill Singer, Cannizzaro strikes out to lead off. Then right fielder Ivan Murrell homers, and so does Spiezio. Pinch hitter Larry Stahl strikes out, but Campbell goes yard (to make it 9-5), and Huntz draws a walk. Finally Singer is lifted in favor of reliever Jose Peña, and Gaston greets him with a two-run blast. Ferrara is hit by a pitch, but Colbert, representing the tying run, strikes out to end the game.

Sept. 26, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Two home runs by Colbert, and another by rookie left fielder Dave Robinson, chase Juan Marichal and help the Padres to a 6-3 lead going to the bottom of the eighth. But a homer by Willie McCovey off starter Clay Kirby tightens it to 6-4, and in the bottom of the ninth, third baseman Jose Arcia commits a throwing error, and against relievers Paul Doyle and Gary Ross the Giants produce a walk and three singles to win it 7-6.

The Padres’ tally for these seven games: 25 home runs, 37 runs scored, and a record of 0-7.

References & Resources
Brenda Zanger and Dick Kaplan, Major League Baseball 1971 (New York: Pocket Books, 1971), p. 124.

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