The Padres Are Making a Last Stand

San Diego Padres
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

To say 2023 has not exactly been the Year of the Padres should win some kind of solid gold trophy awarded for understatement. After 2021’s epic collapse, they returned to the playoffs last year, and though the NLCS ended in disappointment, they at least got the satisfaction of ending Los Angeles’ season early. With a full year of Juan Soto and the return of Fernando Tatis Jr., surely things would be looking up for the mustard-and-brown! Not so much. Though the Padres haven’t eclipsed 2021 in terms of dramatic failure, they’ve been mired in mediocrity the whole year; the last time they woke up in the morning with at least a .500 record was back in May. A 10–18 record in August suggested they’d go out once again with a whimper. Instead, they’ve gone 13–5 in September, easily their best month, and with a seven-game win streak, they’ve kept the ember of their playoff hopes just hot enough to make a fire potentially. And I mean that literally, since I’m currently thinking of a similar scene at the end of The Fifth Element as I write this.

Many of the elements to make an improbable run are there. For one, there are good reasons to think the Padres are a better team than their record. With a run differential that suggests an 85–68 record — and run differential is still more predictive than actual record — they’d be on the verge of clinching a playoff berth. That kind of thing may not save jobs, but it does give them a better chance at reeling off an impressive run of wins over the final week. Also helping out is that two of the competition have spent the last week in a state of collapse. The Cubs have lost 10 of their last 13 games, including six to direct competitor Arizona and series losses to the last-place Rockies and the last-place Pirates. The Giants, at 6–12 for the month, haven’t been much better and just lost Alex Cobb for at least the rest of the regular season. San Diego, meanwhile, gets six games against the White Sox and Cardinals, two teams that haven’t shown a pulse all season, and three games against those stumbling Giants.

Over at MLB.com, our friend Mike Petriello wrote about San Diego’s lackluster campaign and ran down some of the scenarios that need to happen for postseason baseball in San Diego. But let’s go one step farther and crunch some numbers for the Padres.

With Thursday night’s games in the books, I ran the usual ZiPS simulation of a million seasons in order to get the probabilities for the Padres pulling off the big comeback. But for this exercise, instead of just getting what their probabilities are now — about 1.3% — I ran the simulation 10 times, for each possible final record for San Diego. I think this is a better visual representation of their challenge than just the straight-up projections.

Padres ZiPS Playoff Probabilities
Padres Go Finish At Playoff %
9-0 84-78 38.6%
8-1 83-79 15.8%
7-2 82-80 3.9%
6-3 81-81 0.5%
5-4 80-82 0.0%
4-5 79-83 0.0%
3-6 78-84 0.0%
2-7 77-85 0.0%
1-8 76-86 0.0%
0-9 75-87 0.0%

With multiple competitors ahead of them by multiple games, the Padres can’t count on a collapsing team doing most of their heavy lifting. Even shooting the moon in their final nine games leaves them more likely to miss the playoffs than make the postseason. I’m not sure if that’s an even more tragic result; imagine finishing the season on a 16-game winning streak and then still barely missing October baseball! Turns out the first five months of the season are pretty important.

To make the last few days of the season really interesting in San Diego, the team has maybe one loss to work with. Merely going 7–2 leaves the team gigantic underdogs, and ZiPS sees the Padres averaging a .568 winning percentage over the last nine games, otherwise known as 5–4.

But are the generalized ZiPS projections accurate? At this point of the season, you can reasonably construct the pitching matchups, so using the methodology of the ZiPS playoff projections, I projected each game individually:

ZiPS Game-by-Game Padres Probabilities
Date Padres Starter Opposing Team Opposing Starter Home/Road Padres Win%
9/22 Matt Waldron Cardinals Dakota Hudson Home 60.2%
9/23 Nick Martinez Cardinals Jake Woodford Home 62.9%
9/24 Michael Wacha Cardinals Drew Rom Home 59.4%
9/25 Blake Snell Giants Logan Webb Road 51.9%
9/26 Seth Lugo Giants Kyle Harrison Road 55.7%
9/27 Matt Waldron Giants Sean Manaea Road 52.5%
9/29 Pedro Avila White Sox Dylan Cease Road 59.6%
9/30 Michael Wacha White Sox Mike Clevinger Road 63.5%
10/1 Blake Snell White Sox José Ureña Road 73.9%

Using the Probables Grid gets a sunnier result for the Padres than the generalized model, with it seeing the Padres as a .599 team over the final nine games. That difference is enough to give the team about a 2% chance to make the playoffs rather than 1.3% — a small change, but given the overwhelming difficulty of the task, they ought to be happy for any slim advantage they can find.

The chaos of a monumental final run by the Padres may be just what my colleague Jay Jaffe has been missing since baseball ended Games 163. If they pulled off the miraculous comeback — as large as any you’ll find without pulling off the Triple Lindy — will anyone really remember the first two acts?

For five months this season, the Padres were one of the bleakest stories in baseball. But the denouement is looking just interesting enough to sit back with the bottom of your popcorn bucket and wait for the credits to roll before heading back to the car.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Ivan_Grushenkomember
8 months ago

The fact that they still have a 1 in 150 or whatever chance at the playoffs despite a horrendous season is both amazing and an indictment of the NL beyond the Braves and Dodgers. The fact they still have a 1 in 2000 or whatever chance at a WS victory could be 1951 Giants historic.

sadtrombonemember
8 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I’m a little surprised that the Cubs have let mediocrities like the Marlins and Reds back in this thing. They spent all year pasting opponents and it didn’t show up in their record until something like July, and then they get to play the D-Backs in September and they go 0-7. I suppose it’s quite likely it’s random and there’s no reason for it, but their brand of top-notch infield defense and a whole lineup of slightly-above average hitters just didn’t work against the D-Backs. Makes you wonder if they’re going to be ready to go up against the higher caliber of team you deal with in the playoffs.

airforce21one
7 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Bellinger isn’t “slightly” above average, at least this year.

HappyFunBallmember
8 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Having .500-ish teams remain in contention until the end is a feature of having three wild-card berths. It’s what the Lords of Baseball want.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
8 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

Yet one of Toronto, Seattle, Texas or Houston won’t be participating

HappyFunBallmember
8 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Yes. What the Lords of Baseball want is not mediocre teams chasing a one and done WC berth, per se. What they want is a maximum of late season drama. Well, they’ve got it.

Sleepy
8 months ago
Reply to  HappyFunBall

“What they want is a maximum number of Postseason games for which they don’t need to pay the players.”

FIFY

formerly matt w
8 months ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

I don’t think it’s really fair to cast this as an indictment of the NL, which I think is sixteen games ahead in interleague play even without the Braves and Dodgers. (The teams that are tied for second worst in the NL, the Cards and Nats, are even and two games ahead in interleague play respectively!)

The NL:
doesn’t have any team like the A’s and Royals that’s already racked up 100 losses, most to the rest of the league
doesn’t have a division winner like the Twins, who’d be fighting to keep their wild card slot in the NL
does have the aforementioned Padres who have had had terrible luck converting their positive run differential into wins, and the Cubs are similar to a lesser extent.

That means the wild card line is in the .520s instead of the .540s, and a team with a negative run differential is probably going to get in by outperforming–but it also means the NL just isn’t as boom-or-bust as the AL. This could just as easily be an indictment of the AL’s second-division teams crapping the bed while even the bad NL teams keep battling.

(OK, I see that the Royals have somehow won 9 of 10… one could just as easily make it an indictment of the AL that a team in a playoff race has managed to drop 4 of 5 to the Royals.)