In 2009, the San Diego Padres finished with a 75-87 record, “good” for fourth in the National League West — or exactly 20 games behind the division-winning Los Angeles Dodgers. The Hot Stove League was lukewarm, at best, for the Padres; their biggest offseason splash was a one-year deal for a little more than $5 million for an innings-eating righty (Jon Garland) whose upside was/is as a third starter.
Then, their No. 1 prospect, Kyle Blanks — one of the more interesting parts on a team of otherwise low-ceiling players — strained his elbow in mid-May, has been out of commission since then and is now due for Tommy John surgery.
That’s a recipe for success, eh?
Apparently it is — the Padres are leading the NL West (although the San Francisco Giants are hanging right around the front now), and they have an 80 percent chance to make October ball.
So, can they keep this up?
The best way to look at what the Padres have remaining is to view it through the context of how they turned the ship around this year.
1. Excellent fielding
After finishing 2009 at 8.7 runs below average (per Ultimate Zone Rating) in the field, the Padres stand at a league-leading 44.5 runs above average — a swing of about 50 runs, or five wins. A number of caveats apply here, as fielding metrics are still in their infant stages and require a rather large sample to become reliable, but a couple of commonsense examples stand out.
Most notable among these is the departure of Brian Giles from right field. Although something like a league-average right fielder in his younger days, the late-30s version of Giles was a poor fit for Petco’s cavernous right field. His UZR of minus-8.3 there last year — in limited playing time, no less — supports the visual evidence. This year, however, right field has been occupied by three younger, more athletic players: Will Venable (570 innings, plus-3.5 UZR), Aaron Cunningham (124, plus-2.1), and Chris Denorfia (115, plus-1.7). Nor does the recent addition of Ryan Ludwick represent any kind of setback: The right fielder’s plus-7.9 career UZR/150 (that is, fielding runs above average per 150 games) suggests he’ll continue to pick up the slack left behind by Giles.
2. An even better bullpen
If former GM Kevin Towers was known for one thing, it was his ability to construct a bullpen from almost nothing. That skill was certainly on display last season, as Heath Bell ($1.26 million), Mike Adams ($415K) and Luke Gregerson ($400K) combined to form as fearsome a bullpen threesome as existed in the league.
This year, the Padres’ bullpen is even better. Bell, Adams and Gregerson are performing roughly the same as last year and — with the exception of Bell’s $2.75 milion raise — for roughly the same money. Additionally, innings that were given to the likes of Luis Perdomo [60 IP, 5.35 FIP (fielding-independent pitching)] and Greg Burke (45.2, 4.37) have been picked up by Ryan Webb (44.1, 3.02), Tim Stauffer (35.2, 2.77), and — more recently — Ernesto Frieri, who has a 19-to-3 K/BB ratio in 10.1 innings.
3. A league-average offense
It’s not exactly sexy, but relative to where their offense was last year (at approximately 30 runs below average), the Padres will take league-average run production.
Because of their home park, the Padres’ offensive stats will always look worse than they are. Even accounting for that, however, there’s little good one could say about Giles’ 2009 triple-slash (AVG/OBP/SLG) line of .191/.277/.271 in 254 PA or catcher Eliezer Alfonso’s .175/.197/.254 in 117 PA.
Padres right fielders batted .225/.288/.366 last year, but that same group has batted .254/.323/.439. And where Padres catchers — mostly Nick Hundley, Henry Blanco and the aforementioned Alfonzo — posted a line of .225/.291/.367 in 2009, that number, under the watch of Yorvit Torrealba and Hundley, has improved to .277/.347/.392.
Improvements in these three areas alone (fielding, bullpen and offensive improvement) represent about an 11-win improvement already over last year’s team — and that’s with 50 games remaining.
OK, so — can this be kept up through the first weekend of October?
There are three things to consider:
1. Base Runs standings
Yes, it sounds nerdy, but don’t be too scared: Base Runs is just a way of estimating how many runs a team should have scored (or allowed) given the events (hits, walks, home runs, etc.) that have occurred in their games. Using these estimated runs scored (and allowed) totals, we can project the amount of wins and losses a team is likely to have in the future.
If we do this for the Padres and Giants, we get projected winning percentages of .544 and .528, respectively. In other words, it’s not luck that the Pads are in first place; they’re justifiably there. (Note: The Rockies have a Base Runs winning percentage of .576, suggesting that they’ve actually been the best in the West. Unfortunately for them, with only 50 games remaining, their chances of closing the gap are low.)
Therefore, if we go merely on Base Runs, we’d say that the Padres look like division winners over the Giants by about three wins (93-69 versus 90-72).
2. Rest of season schedule
Per Base Runs standings, San Diego actually has a slightly easier schedule than the Giants for the rest of the season. Padres opponents have a weighted Base Runs winning percentage of .511, Giants opponents, .512. This also bodes well for San Diego’s chances — or, at least doesn’t hurt them.
3. The “true talent” question
One possible cause for concern in the Padres is that much of their improvement to date — about five wins of it — has been based off of runs saved in the field. As noted above, it’s hard to get any sort of solid grasp on a team’s level of true fielding talent over the course of just one season. In this case, the Padres are no exception. Yes, we can guess that — barring a snap decision to re-sign Giles and install him in center field — they’ll continue to be better than last year. What we don’t know is whether they’ll continue to be this good, league-leading good.
Really, this will be the important question for the Padres: Can they continue to flash the leather as they have to date? If the answer is yes, playoff baseball awaits them. If the answer is no, the Giants might have the talent (and/or luck) to close San Diego’s slim divisional lead.