San Diego’s Historically Tenuous Trio

The San Diego Padres currently own the worst offense in baseball. Maybe that’s not surprising given that they play half of their games in Petco Park, one of the league’s most pitcher-friendly confines. Still, an average of three runs per game is paltry, and the fact that they’ve scored three runs or less – when teams win just 22 percent of the time this season – in 26 of their 40 games is rather astounding, especially since they’ve managed to go 19-21.

It’s so bad, in fact, that even when the park is controlled for using weighted runs created plus (wRC+), the Padres still grade out as the worst offense in baseball, and by a significant margin. Their wRC+ of 75 is indicative of an offense 25 percent worse than the league average, and they’ve produced quite a cushion between themselves and the next worst offense (the Cubs, with a wRC+ of 81).

Where does the blame fall for this kind of offensive ineptitude? You’d think it would be a team-wide epidemic but most of the blame can fall squarely on the league’s most tenuous trio.

Before looking at the three regular hitters sinking the offensive ship, it’s only fair to point out that Padres pitchers have produced a -18 wRC+, a mark that stands a hair above the league median but is ninth among National League teams. Their pitchers aren’t to blame for their NL-relative weakness, but their 73 plate appearances do explain some of the gap between the Friars and the worst American League offense (the Mariners, with a wRC+ of 82).

What does hurt the Padres, however, is having three of the seven worst qualified hitters on the season as everyday players in their lineup. Yonder Alonso, Jedd Gyorko and Will Venable rank 176th, 175th and 173rd, respectively, out of 179 qualified hitters in wRC+ this year with marks of 41, 41 and 46. Said differently, the Padres are regularly employing three of just seven players in all of baseball who have been less than half as good as the average player.

Now, having three subpar regulars isn’t unique. The degree is extreme, but plenty of teams employ three or more below-average players on an everyday basis, and only the Dodgers are without any below-average qualified hitters.
That picture changes, though, when “below-average” becomes “complete sinkhole.”
Here, the Padres are alone in their futility (Everth Cabrera also has a wRC+ of 69, if you were wondering who the fourth is). Most teams simply don’t allow for more than one player this bad and, even if they do, they tend to balance it out with some players performing to a high positive degree, something only Seth Smith is doing for San Diego.

(On a related note, the wRC+ gap between Smith and Alonso/Gyorko is the second largest gap between qualified teammates in all of baseball, behind only the Troy Tulowitzki (224) and D.J. LeMahieu (70) gap. The Astros are the most “balanced” team, with just 25 points of wRC+ separating their best and worst qualified hitters.)
To put this trio, or even foursome, in context, there have been just 108 qualified player seasons since 2000 where a player finished with a wRC+ of 75 or lower and just seven with a wRC+ of 50 or less. Exactly zero teams have employed more than two players with a wRC+ of 75 or lower in the same season in this century, and just 11 have even employed two players that bad (the Chicago Cubs did it last year with Darwin Barney and Starlin Castro).

Of course, it’s the middle of May, and screams of small sample size are appropriate. The fact that 18 players currently have a wRC+ of 75 or lower – more than double the normal full-season amount – speaks to that. In addition, no team since the end of the 19th century has employed four hitters that bad like the Padres currently do, and only nine have even had three, most recently with the Cleveland Indians in 1979.

There are two primary reasons teams don’t finish with this many poor hitters often: players will regress to the mean and their numbers will improve, or they’ll stop getting enough plate appearances to qualify.

In the case of Alonso, the latter may be possible. The 27-year-old is earning just shy of $1 million this season and no longer seems enough of a “prospect” that the Padres should feel inclined to continue to give him opportunities to prove himself. With that said, 27 is not old, either, and Alonso’s career wRC+ still sits at a healthy 101. What’s more, it’s not as if Tommy Medica or Kyle Blanks are exactly knocking at the door with stellar performance of their own. The team could shift some of Alonso’s first base time to Yasmani Grandal, opening up additional run for Rene Rivera behind the plate but again, it’s not as if Rivera is demanding more time.

If there’s no higher-upside option, it seems the team will continue to let Alonso figure things out. His BABIP is far lower than he’s accustomed to and his strikeout rate is down thanks to improved contact and a lower O-Swing rate, indicating his average should be north of the Mendoza line shortly. His walk rate is down but still projects as appreciable, and while he doesn’t look like a 20-home run bat, his 0.0 percent HR/FB rate is, obviously, an early-season anomaly, especially since his fly ball and line drive rates are up and his batted ball distances haven’t decreased.

As for Gyorko and Venable, however, the Padres don’t even appear to have the option to shift their playing time elsewhere. With a payroll of just $90.6 million, and one that is quite a leap in spending for the franchise, they’re unlikely to pull the plug on two of their more recent expenditures.

Gyorko was just gifted a six-year, $35.5 million contract despite projecting as a relatively average second baseman with plenty of team control remaining and he’s rewarded the team by costing them nearly a full win in the early going. His BABIP is excruciatingly low at .175, but part of that is because his line drive rate has tanked to 13.7 percent. His fly ball rate remains healthy and his HR/FB rate is still above-average, but his batted ball distance on flies and liners has dropped slightly from 272.08 to 265.55 (that may be low enough to attribute solely to the early cold temperatures, which depress offense). In terms of discipline, his profile is similar to 2013 and has even improved some, but he still looks like a moderate-strikeout, moderate-walk hitter.

He’s not going anywhere, though, because he’s got the contract, he’s better than this and the team wants and needs to wait it out.

In the case of Venable, well, I’ve always been a fan on the fantasy side and the two-year, $8.5 million contract didn’t seem egregious considering he earned $2.7 million the year prior, but it really hasn’t worked out so far. His defense is still roughly average and his versatility provides some value, but he’s been below replacement level overall.

Of most concern, his strikeout rate has spiked to 26.2 percent thanks to a huge drop in O-Contact rate but an uptick in O-Swing rate, all while he’s seen fewer pitches in the zone. The walk rate is up a tick but it seems Venable is being far too aggressive on bad pitches. Combined with a .253 BABIP that’s well below his norm – his line drive rate, like Gyorko’s, has cratered from the 21-22 range to just 15.4 percent – and the result is a .188 average and .248 on-base percentage. If he’s not on base, he can’t run, where he adds additional value, and his HR/FB rate has bottomed out despite only losing a few feet on his average batted ball distance.

What seems apparent, however, is that Venable’s 2013 home run output of 22 on a 19.8 percent HR/FB mark was a major outlier.
venable balls
But where do the Padres realistically turn? They play four or five outfielders with some regularity, so they could shift Venable back into a fourth outfielder role rather than an everyday one (he’s actually been better against lefties than righties this season and last, so a straight platoon doesn’t fit). There don’t seem to be enough innings for Venable, Smith, Cameron Maybin, Chris Denorfia (“Dadnorfia”) and occasionally Alexi Amarista to share, even if Amarista is low on the totem pole and Xavier Nady is now a distant memory. Venable has to start hitting, or he’ll find himself back in the role he occupied from 2009 to 2011.

Of course, none of these players will continue to be this bad. They all have pedigree that suggests they’re much better, and projection systems like them all to rebound.

Player wRC+ ZiPS ROS wRC+ Steamer ROS wRC+
Alonso 41 96 112
Cabrera 69 85 88
Gyorko 41 96 106
Venable 46 93 106

Suggesting they’ll all “eventually get hot” would be employing the gambler’s fallacy, but each should see an uptick in performance in the coming weeks and months, to be sure. Whether that, coupled with Smith and Maybin coming back to earth some, lifts the Padres out of the league’s offensive basement is unclear (they’re half a run per game behind the No. 28 offense), but it should be enough to stem the tide if and when their record tries to regress to their run differential.

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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Yeah, I looked at the wRC+ trailers the other day and noticed the group of padres. Gyorko perked up slightly with a 2 homer game.

Notes, as this must have been drafted before last night. Alonso homered so his hr/fb rate is above 0%. Good call! Blanks is gone, dealt to A’s. And Quentin is going to be back in the OF picture.