The Padres’ Biggest Problem

Even after a win Tuesday, the Padres stand at a flat 20-20, and there’s talk that manager Bud Black might be on the hot seat given ownership expectations. Curiously, the Padres aren’t letting minor-league coach Pat Murphy talk to the Brewers, and while there’s any number of potential explanations, one could be that the team sees Murphy as a Black replacement. Managers get fired by disappointing baseball teams. The Padres haven’t quite lived up to their preseason hype.

When you get to thinking about why, it’s only natural to consider the team defense. It always looked like it was going to be a potential issue, and the numbers indicate the defense has indeed been a weakness, mostly in the outfield. By Defensive Runs Saved, the Padres have been the fourth-worst defensive team in the league. By UZR, they’re second-worst. Right there, it seems like you can explain the team’s bottom-six ERA. But as it turns out, there’s something else going on. Something that’s hurt the Padres even more than their defense.

Here’s a good representative quote, from Tuesday starter James Shields:

“He came after the seventh and said, ‘If I quit giving up home runs, I’d be pretty good,'” Black said after the Padres rallied to top the Cubs, 4-3, at Petco Park on Tuesday.

If you can believe it, the Padres have allowed more home runs than any other team in baseball. They’ve allowed two more than the Brewers, who play their home games in a hitter-friendly environment. They’ve allowed five more than the Blue Jays, who play their home games in a hitter-friendly environment. They’ve allowed a dozen more than the Reds, who, you get it. The Padres have featured a dinger-happy pitching staff. Dingers are automatic runs. They’re the worst possible outcome.

What does this look like? Below, let’s track the Padres’ team home runs per fly ball allowed, season to season, for as long as we’ve got data:

padres-hr-fb

There’s a spike this year, to 17.2%. Previously, the highest mark we see is right around 14%. The overall average is just barely north of 10%. Think about that average, and think about where the Padres stand today. What’s the cost of all those extra home runs? We’re looking at 23 dingers, north of what you’d expect based on the team average. Now it’s time for some linear-weight approximations. If you, say, turned those extra homers into doubles, that’d be a difference of about 15 runs. If you turned them into outs, it’d be a difference of about 38 runs. If you turned half of them into doubles and half of them into outs, it’s a difference of 26 runs. The defense? The defense has been an issue. The home runs have been a bigger issue. You’re looking at something like two or three or four wins, or thereabouts.

This won’t surprise you: the Padres own the highest team HR/FB% allowed in baseball.

2015-hr-fb

Just in case you’re curious, they also have the highest rate of home runs per ball hit fair:

2015-hr-bip

James Shields has been abused, in between strikeouts. Ian Kennedy’s given up a bunch of homers. Ditto Andrew Cashner. Even Craig Kimbrel has proved unusually hittable. This year, he’s allowed three home runs; last year, he allowed two home runs.

Home runs aren’t fun to allow. They’re the thing you want to protect against the most. It’s difficult to conclusively explain why the Padres are where they are. Maybe they’ve gotten unlucky. Maybe their pitching staff has gotten worse. Maybe there’s something about Derek Norris, even though he didn’t have a homer problem before. Maybe they’re getting into predictable situations, throwing predictable pitches, and batters are doing damage in turn. Generally, you don’t allow a home run when you properly execute.

But, you probably know the bright side. If you’ve been reading FanGraphs for long, you’re familiar with the vagaries of HR/FB%. I noted before the Padres, at the moment, are at 17.2% as a team. The highest team mark posted between 2002 – 2014 was 14.1%, by the 2012 Blue Jays. Right here is a plot of split-season HR/FB% allowed, comparing first and second halves from the past five years.

hr-fb-half-splits

There isn’t a particularly strong relationship, and the equation calls for heavy regression. If we plugged the Padres into the best-fit formula, we’d get an “expected” second-half HR/FB% around 12%. And remember, we aren’t at the All-Star break, nor are we close. We’re a quarter of the way into the season. What’s the right thing to expect from the Padres? Something like an average rate of home runs. Even if it is their fault that what’s happened has happened, history indicates this isn’t keeping up.

About that. The Padres’ adjusted team FIP is second-worst in baseball, and worst in the National League. But this is exactly why we have xFIP. That’s too easy a number, and it makes too simple an assumption, but it works as an indicator when you’re dealing with extreme home-run rates. The Padres are tied for the No. 10 adjusted team xFIP, and they’re even with the Nationals. The difference between the Padres’ FIP- and xFIP- is 22 points. The next-biggest is 15; the next-biggest is 9.

The Padres are going to stop giving up so many homers. These pitches? These were homers, Tuesday night. Wasn’t even necessarily a case of terrible location.

shields1

shields2

kimbrel1

This, meanwhile, didn’t go for a homer.

shields_out

Damn sure could’ve. Would’ve changed the whole game. But, there’s very little difference between a home run and a fly ball to the warning track, a lot of the time. The Padres have had too many balls go a few feet too far. Maybe this .gif is evidence their luck’s about to turn.

The explanations are trickier. Maybe it isn’t luck. Maybe it really is about, say, pitch-sequencing. But, the thing about that is you can learn and make adjustments going forward. If the Padres have been pitching too predictably, they don’t need to keep doing that. What we know is what the numbers say, and the numbers say dinger rates like this don’t sustain. That’s probably true for a variety of reasons, but there’ll be reasons for when the Padres’ numbers settle back to something normal.

And as that happens, the Padres’ pitchers will increasingly hold up their end of the bargain. And the Padres will look like a better baseball team. A team that should win more often than it loses. We’ll just have to see if the numbers figure themselves out in time to save Bud Black’s employment. But no matter who’s in charge, virtually certain regression is coming.

We hoped you liked reading The Padres’ Biggest Problem by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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PR
Guest
PR

no mention of this but doesnt Petco make this stat even crazier?

Emcee Peepants
Guest
Emcee Peepants

Since they moved the fences prior to the 2013 season, Petco has been around 20th in terms of HR Park Factor, at 96 both years. Overall, it’s still a pitcher’s park, but does not suppress HRs like it used to.