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The Padres' abnormal ground ball distribution

The Padres' front office seems to focus on the extremes when looking at ground ball distribution. How is that affecting performance?

A defensive wizard
A defensive wizard

From 2011-2013, the Padres essentially spun their wheels in the mud. Their won-loss record hasn't significantly improved, and they don't seem any closer to playoff contention. I have been doing research on starting pitcher batted ball profiles, so I decided to dig into the Padres' data after I noticed that the Padres ranked 4th in GB% from 2011-2013. Ground balls are supposed to be good for pitchers, but if that is the case then why have the Padres' starters ranked 27th in ERA-, 29th in FIP-, and 24th in xFIP- over the same period? Though the Padres have not ranked highly in K% and BB% during the past 3 years overall, they aren't far from the middle. There's mystery here.

But looking just at their overall GB% from 2011-2013 doesn't tell the whole story. In those years, the Padres have had a non-normal distribution of ground ball rates. The Padres tend to focus on either high GB% pitchers (Clayton Richard, Jason Marquis) or low-ish GB% pitchers (Eric Stults, Aaron Harang) and generally ignore those in the middle. Consequently, their GB% distribution takes the shape of a valley rather than a bell curve.

Given that the Padres have a pitching-favorable home park (moving the fences in 2013 has dampened the favorable effect for pitchers) and tight budget constraints, they are fairly similar to the Athletics. It makes sense for them to maximize value out of their small budget and ballpark by focusing on predictable pitching tendencies, as the Athletics are known to do. However, the results have not followed the strategy like they have in Oakland. Trades and injuries explain a part of this phenomenon. However, their defense is another important aspect, especially when you think about runs allowed based stats such as ERA-.

In 2011, the Padres staff actually ranked near the middle of the pack despite a starting pitching payroll similar to what the Padres are paying only Josh Johnson (who has been a high-GB% pitcher in the past) in 2014. That year, Cameron Maybin spent the summer chasing down batted balls in CF and did so quite skillfully. Their team defense ranked well with 46 defensive runs saved (ranked 3rd) and a 22 UZR (ranked 8th). However, their team defense declined in 2012 from its 2011 levels; Cameron Maybin wasn't rated quite as highly in 2012, and Carlos Quentin's presence hurt. Correlation is not causation, but I imagine the decline in team defense was at least partly responsible for the poor starting pitching performance in 2012. Their defense rebounded a bit in 2013, but defense mattered little when Jason Marquis, Clayton Richard, and Burch Smith were handing out home runs like Halloween candy on the fly balls they did allow.

Despite relatively poor team defense in the past, the 2014 squad has potential. Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko, and Chase Headley seem to be solid defenders, while Chris Denorfia did his best Cameron Maybin impression in 2013. One missing piece in this evaluation is infield shifting data, which could reveal how much, if at all, the Padres are taking advantage of their high GB% pitchers. The Padres are in a unique position to blend the ground ball-centric strategy of the Pirates and the fly ball-centric strategy of the Athletics into a hybrid run prevention strategy based on their strange collection of pitchers who live at the ends of the batted ball distribution. Running a specialized defense platooning strategy that supports each particular pitcher could help get the Padres closer to the postseason.

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All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Kevin Ruprecht is contributor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royal Stats for Everyone. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.