The Padres Descend Into Danger by Ben Clemens August 18, 2021 A month ago, things were fine. After the games of July 17, the Padres were 55-40, hanging on to the periphery of the NL West chase. Five games back of the Giants, they didn’t have a ton of hope — our odds gave them a 10.4% chance of winning the division — but they were close enough to dream, and a 5.5-game edge in the Wild Card race meant they had a 92.3% overall chance of reaching the playoffs. Today, that number is down to 46.3%. Yikes! It didn’t happen overnight. By looking at the slow decline of their chances, I think we might learn a thing or two about what went wrong, and maybe get a sense of what they’ll need to do the rest of the year to avoid plummeting all the way out of the postseason, an outcome that felt downright inconceivable before their recent swoon. July 24 Record since July 17: 3-3 FG Playoff Odds: 92.3% Wild Card Lead: 5.5 games Things were looking up! A huge group of reinforcements had just come off the injured list, as Drew Pomeranz, Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Ryan Weathers, and Austin Nola all returned to action. On the field, the team fended off some NL East opposition — Nationals, Braves, and Marlins — and kept pace in the standings. Even better news: the trade deadline was approaching fast, and there’s no one better to add to a team than AJ Preller. The Padres were linked to everyone, and after their offseason frenzy, every rumor seemed credible. The playoffs seemed all but a certainty; the real question was whether they could catch the teams ahead of them in the West. July 31 Record since July 24: 2-4 FG Playoff Odds: 76.7% Wild Card Lead: 4 games The deadline went poorly for the Padres. Adam Frazier is a nice piece, but only that; he was hardly a lineup-altering force. In theory, Frazier gave the team the flexibility to avoid playing Eric Hosmer, but Hosmer played in every game the week after Frazier joined the club. Every contender seemingly got a piece of the Cubs and Nationals, but the Padres’ take — Jake Marisnick and Daniel Hudson — was worse than either the Dodgers’ or Giants’. Meanwhile, the team languished through an easy slate. Despite playing four of their six games against the Rockies and Marlins, they only managed a 2-4 mark. That ate into their Wild Card lead, because the Reds were hot, but four games is still a healthy buffer. But this day was tremendously impactful to the Padres’ chances, and it wasn’t just because they failed to improve at the deadline. Injuries went from a nebulous concern to truly worrisome, as Jay Jaffe detailed at the time (https://blogs.fangraphs.com/injuries-and-an-underwhelming-deadline-have-dealt-the-padres-significant-blows/). The lesser of two blows came in the form of Chris Paddack, who strained his oblique in a bullpen session that took place just after the deadline. That of course meant the Padres couldn’t trade for a replacement, but he wasn’t close to the biggest injury of the day. That came when Fernando Tatis Jr. re-injured his shoulder sliding into third base, his fifth subluxation of the year. That earned him an immediate spot on the IL, and missing a few weeks of Tatis did serious damage to the team’s playoff odds. Yet again, the timing of the injury stung; the trade market had several shortstops, but the Padres had passed on them. August 7 Record since July 31: 3-2 FG Playoff Odds: 66.9% Wild Card Lead: 2.5 games You’d think that going 3-2 would give you some breathing room, but those pesky Reds just kept coming, going 5-1 over the week. Meanwhile, San Diego’s divisional hopes were now more or less gone — the Giants held a 7.5-game lead — which made missing out on Scherzer all the more painful. Ryan Weathers got shelled by the woeful Diamondbacks, Mark Melancon blew a save — the action on the field was maddening. A team can stomach several of this sort of week, though. With their best player out, passing time above .500 is a fine place to end up. Managing that record despite a blown save and two starts from rookie pitchers? It’s as good as they could have hoped for. Weeks like this are why leads tend to hold up. The Padres are a good team even with Tatis sidelined. They’re a good team even with the last two spots in their rotation held by rookies. If they played .600 baseball for the remainder of the year, they’d easily make the playoffs. This is why dopey internet pundits like me trust the odds; more often than not, talent and games in hand win out. August 14 Record since August 7: 3-4 FG Playoff Odds: 56.9% Wild Card Lead: 2.5 games Wait, huh? The Padres were awful over this stretch. Their slate was as easy as it comes, with three against the Marlins and four against the Diamondbacks, and they were lucky to finish 3-4 — those motley outfits outscored them by 16 runs. It was the kind of week that can weigh a team down. You win more against the bad teams than the good ones, and winning five of seven in these soft patches of schedule is how good teams get to their gaudy records. But wait! The gap in the race didn’t tighten. That’s because the Reds played a significantly tougher schedule and also only managed a 3-4 record. You can’t give away too many easy weeks like this, but you can give away some, especially if there’s only one team chasing you. Leads are valuable things. But wait again! We knocked 10 percentage points off of San Diego’s playoff odds, despite no change in the standings. That’s partially because of the schedules — the Padres got through the soft underbelly of their schedule without banking any extra wins. We simulate the season 20,000 times to come up with our odds, and in many of those scenarios, this week catapulted the Padres up in the standings — it’s a lot easier to pick up games when you play a bunch of scrubs. Even worse, injuries continued to mount. Drew Pomeranz had missed a ton of time in the 2021 season, but he’d been excellent when healthy, to the tune of a 1.75 ERA (and 3.03 FIP). In his nine appearances since returning from the IL (up at the start of this article), he’d been on form (2.08 ERA, 3.18 FIP). Then he felt something in his arm, and that was that — a torn flexor tendon is going to keep him out for the rest of the year. The bullpen has been a strength this season, but it’s had to be, with all the injuries to starting pitching. Speaking of injuries to starting pitching: the Padres have been downright cursed. Darvish and Joe Musgrove had been the team’s only reliable starters all year — Snell has been a mess and Paddack has been hurt. In Darvish’s August 12 start, his lower back tightened up in the third inning — and potentially before that, as he looked off all night. The team evaluated him over the next few days, then placed him on the IL Sunday. It would be hard to overstate how much this injury hurts. The Padres came into the season with a strong but shallow rotation. Darvish, Snell, Musgrove, Paddack, and Dinelson Lamet were one of the best top fives in baseball, but depth was always a question. That question has been answered, and not in a good way: Weathers doesn’t look ready for prime time. Adrian Morejon lasted two starts before needing Tommy John surgery. Reiss Knehr was rushed to the majors, but he’s no one’s idea of a sure thing. Things were so bad that the Padres had to bring in Jake Arrieta. That’s… suboptimal. Arrieta was so bad this year that the Cubs cut him loose unconditionally rather than let him play out the string. That might be partially due to his, uh, divisive locker room presence, but it’s also because he’s been awful. His 6.88 ERA hardly looks like a fluke — he’s walking 9.5% of the batters he faces while striking out only 18.1%, below average on both counts. Everywhere you look, the signs are grim. Fastball velocity? It’s the lowest of his career. Swinging strike rate? A woeful 7.2%. Opponents are smashing line drives, getting the ball in the air, and knocking the stuffing out of it when they do. ZiPS and Steamer both think he’ll be replacement level the rest of the season, but I think they’re too kind; he simply looks cooked. The -0.7 WAR he’s totaled so far this year feels more like a guide to his form than the Arrieta of old at this point. And that’s only San Diego’s fourth starter! Matt Strahm, who last started in 2019, was pressed into service to round out the rotation, likely as part of a bullpen game. With Snell still scuffling, that leaves Musgrove as the lone dependable starter. Despite the injuries, the Padres have a great offense and a great bullpen — and they’ll have to given the pitching they’re counting on. August 18 Record since August 14: 1-2 FG Playoff Odds: 46.3% Wild Card Lead: 1.5 games That brings us to today. The Strahm bullpen game resulted in yet another loss to the Rockies, the team’s second straight. The Reds are still gaining, and the Padres are running out of easy games. The projected strength of their remaining schedule is the hardest in the majors — we project their opponents to play .539 baseball the rest of the way. There’s still plenty of baseball to play, and the Padres still have the lead. Tatis is back, albeit in right field. The offense has scuffled over the past month, and deadline acquisitions Frazier and Marisnick have combined for -0.4 WAR, but the team still looks like a top 10 offense in baseball, particularly with Tatis back in the fold. Figuring out where to play everyone will of course be complicated, but it’s a good problem to have — lots of teams would love to find a way to plug Tatis into their outfield. Still, their path to the playoffs has narrowed considerably. A month ago, the Padres merely had to hold serve to reach the postseason, and they had a stretch of games against the Rockies and Diamondbacks to help pad their lead. Those games are gone. The lead might be next. If they can’t fix their pitching — either by getting Darvish, Lament and Paddack back or by coaxing something out of Arrieta — they won’t make the playoffs.