At 24-16, atop the NL West, the San Diego Padres are baseball’s biggest surprise thus
far. There seems to be an almost automatic assumption that this team will drop from the
standings and resume their expected role as trade deadline sellers. While this is certainly
a possibility, a close look at the team suggests that they might a dark horse team starting their run.
Unlike Cincinnati, the Padres have not been overly lucky on their way to 24-16. In
fact their Pythagorean record is even better at 26-14. Only the Rays, Yankees, Phillies
and Blue Jays have a better run differential than the Padres and they have allowed fewer
runs than any other team in baseball. Given their pitching-friendly home park, it is
especially interesting to note that their record is almost the same home and away (12-9
home 89RS/56RA and 12-7 away 80RS/67RA). Even though the team’s main strengths
of pitching and defense are suited to Petco Park, this team travels well, winning the same
way on the road.
If you are skeptical about the Padres, you are probably thinking that their league leading
pitching (leading in ERA, FIP xFIP, WPA, and on and on) will falter, regress to the mean
and leave their anemic offense unable to make up the difference. It is certainly not
unreasonable to think that. The staff overall has been blessed with a lucky .271 BABIP
well below the .301 league average. They also have a fantastic strand rate, leaving 79 %
of runners on base, second in the majors to the Rays. Some of that may not be luck
however, since Padres just may have the second best defense in baseball (12.2 URZ/150
thus far, SSS warnings, of course).
Still, looking at their pitching from ERA to FIP to xFIP you see the numbers creeping
upwards, even if they do remain very, very good. With their lack of offense fire power,
even a very good staff backed by a strong defense might find it hard to keep winning
without the lucky breaks. Doing so will almost assuredly mean several young players are
stepping up their game beyond what we project.
The most obvious pitcher to look at as a potential star is 22 year old Mat Latos. He
caught a lot of people’s eyes when he followed up an 8 inning, 2 hit performance against
Houston with his dazzling complete game 1 hitter on May 13th against the Giants. Only a
single hit up the middle kept Latos from a perfect game. Latos has steadily decreased his
walks and increased his strikeout since the beginning of the season and currently holds an
excellent 3.70 K/BB ratio. He has been lucky with balls in play, with a .239 BABIP, but
not so lucky on the long ball and as a result his FIP (4.05) is higher than his xFIP (3.72).
The projections peg Latos to be pretty much what he has been so far this season, above
average but not quite among the elite. His past three starts, however, show he might just
be the game’s next premiere pitcher.
The other young pitcher sporting some flashy numbers is 25 year old Wade LeBlanc.
LeBlanc has an impressive 1.54 ERA supported by a very strong 2.67 FIP, and that is
with a slightly above average .315 BABIP. LeBlanc has been lucky in one area though as
he is yet to allow a home run. With a GB% of just under 40% that is not likely last and
his xFIP is a much more reasonable 3.95. The most intriguing thing about LeBlanc is his
strikeout rate which he managed to improve upon every season in the minors until his
first call up in 2008. His K’s are on the rise again, as he has thus far posted a 6.94 K/9
and pushed his walk rate down much closer to it minor league level. Projections see
LeBlanc more or less stabilizing at this level of performance, but much like Latos,
LeBlanc is a young pitcher with a strong track record who could be ready to establish
himself as a top tier pitcher.
If there is one thing I am completely sure of, it is this: If the Padres win the NL West or
even the wildcard, Adrian Gonzales will be a top MVP candidate. It is hard to imagine
the Padres being anywhere near contention without Gonzales and if they should continue
their improbable success, he will be given much of the credit, possibly even more than he
deserves. However, coming off of a 6.6 WAR season, Gonzales is hardly a breakout
candidate. Sure, he could top last season and his projections but at this point little that he
could do would really put him at another level, he is already just about as elite as they
come. While he will get tons of the credit if the Padres succeed (such is the luxury of
being a power hitting, gold glove fielding, on base machine), that success will hinge more
on his supporting cast.
In particular the two highest ceiling position players, Chase Headley and Kyle Blanks
will need to break out. Both players had excellent walk rates and plus power in the
minors and both have struggled in their brief time in the show. Headley has retuned to
third base this season, which certainly helps him as he a better defender at the hot corner
then in left. The two skills that have thus far failed to translate for Headley are his power
and patience. He has not been able to duplicate his minor walk rates in the majors,
walking at 10.1% rate last year and just 7.9% this season. He had been able to post 13%
(A+) and 14.2% (AA) in his full minor league seasons. It is possible that Petco is hurting
his slugging as he has slugged 81 points higher on the road for his career, but that could
just be noise. Still after slugging .580 in AA, he has yet to post an above average slugging
percentage in the majors. He will need to turn this season around quickly if it is to be any
kind of breakout year.
Blanks too had excellent minor league numbers as hitter and showed some of those skills
last season in 54 games with the Padres, but he is not fairing so well thus far. He is
getting hurt by a .245 BABIP but the really eye catching number is his 45.1% strikeout
rate. To put that in perspective, last season, on his way to 223 strikeouts, Mark Reynolds
whiffed at ‘only’ 38.6% of the time.. Making matters worse, Blanks is a poor defender
and maybe best suited to play 1B, where he isn’t going to rise above number 2 on the
depth chart. Without rapid improvement, Blanks certainly doesn’t seem to on the verge of
a breakout out any time soon and may have trouble just getting in the line up.
While the Padres are certainly overachieving, the strong mix of pitching and defense that
they have could just work. If they are going to be any kind of dark horse, it looks like it will