The Universal Meaninglessness of the Padres’ Opening Series

Sometimes it’s hard to know exactly what to say. Trying to encapsulate the true feelings of a fan base can leave us searching for words, grasping at the disparate ends of an often tattered, communal cloth. Those words might not be too hard to find for the Padres fan base right now, however. After being swept by the Dodgers this week while scoring zero runs in their opening series, it probably consists of a long string of expletives. Maybe a few sudden sobs. The meat of this article might not make you feel better about the past three games, Padres fans. But something brought me back to this series — not just its historic futility on the part of one of the teams, but the nature of that futility.

First, the history. The 2016 Padres are the first team in baseball history to score zero runs in their first three games of the season. That’s been well publicized. There’s more, though. There always is, but in this case, the more is really just more of less. Take a look at where the 2016 Padres stand among the worst-starting teams in baseball history in terms of a few chosen statistics, found through Baseball Reference’s Play Index (all ranks are through the first three games of respective seasons):

2016 Padres Ranks Through First 3 Games, All-Time (1913-)
Total Rank
AVG .120 5th-lowest
OBP .138 2nd-lowest
SLG .130 2nd-lowest
Strikeouts 28 18th-most
PAs 94 5th-fewest
SOURCE: Baseball Reference

The wrong kind of historic across the board, these are the sort of numbers we see when the team that was projected to score the fewest runs in the majors goes up against a Dodgers rotation featuring Clayton Kershaw, Scott Kazmir, and Kenta Maeda. And, looking at these numbers, a lot of readers are probably going to think the Padres deserved this sort of start from the way their team is constructed and the way they played. But what actually goes into a historically bad start like this? Was it truly the Padres’ futility, or did the baseball gods have a part to play in this series? The answer almost certainly lies somewhere in between, but the finding out is the fun part. So here we go!

To preface all this, we should note — as always — that we’re still in a sort of carnival atmosphere with baseball season. We’re all really excited, but everything is bright and overblown: many of the statistics we have are kind of unusable because of the sample size. We’ve played less than a week of baseball, after all. Still, we have some tools at our disposal.

To begin with, the strikeouts and walks for Padres hitters. Two walks and 28 strikeouts in three games is not good, and it’s what happens when a team only sees three-ball counts in 11 of 94 plate appearances. We can chalk some of that up to the Dodgers: they threw first-pitch strikes to 67% of Padres batters they faced (while league average last year was about 61%). But that’s not an eye-popping rate, and the Zone% for the Padres was only just below average, as well (46.4% vs. 47.8% avg.). So what gives? The culprit looks to be the Z-Contact rate of the Padres’ hitters, which came in at a woeful 80.4%, almost seven points under the 2015 league average of 87.1%. San Diego simply didn’t make enough contact on pitches in the strike zone, which isn’t terribly surprising given the quality of pitchers on the mound.

What about the balls in play? The Padres only had one extra-base hit during the series, so we can probably make some reasonable inferences about how hard the team was hitting the ball off the Dodgers’ front three. The Padres had a BABIP of .172 during the series, but that doesn’t exactly tell us all we want to know (especially because it’s three games). We can go one step better and see the quality of contact profile for the Padres in our leaderboards, and they’re what we might expect: namely a hard-hit rate of just 14.1%. For reference, the only player with a hard-hit rate lower than that in 2015 was Billy Burns (13.8%), and his skill set is strangely and uniquely suited to take advantage of that sort of batted-ball profile.

To expand on that, let’s bring in some exit velocities. Here are the number of exit velocities in different bands for the Padres during the past series, courtesy of Baseball Savant:

2016 Padres Exit Velocities, First 3 Games
Balls in Play Hits
>100 MPH 4 1
>95-100 MPH 8 0
>90-95 MPH 5 0
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The Padres hit a number of balls pretty hard, especially those in the 95-plus mph range, and all they got was one Yangervis Solarte double out of it. If you’re wondering what sort of outcomes we should expect to see out of balls hit this hard, take a look at this informative tweet from Savant creator Daren Willman:

What we’re obviously missing here is launch angle, which is a crucial component in determining batted-ball outcomes. Launch angle or not, however, we now see evidence that the Padres’ did hit balls hard in individual circumstances — and they were more or less completely unrewarded for it. Overall, the Padres didn’t hit balls hard during this past series, and that was a big problem.

In my time as a FanGraphs writer, I have gravitated more and more toward a sort of baseball nihilism: the thought that, no matter what a team might try to do during a game, series, or season, their actions are still placed within a system outside of their complete control. Our goal as writers and analysts is to attempt to account for the sometimes unaccountable, and that is a noble and sometimes frustrating goal. The opening series for the Padres can be viewed through this lens. Yes, it was unfortunate that they had to go up against Kershaw, Kazmir, and Maeda in the opening three games of the season. Any team would struggle mightily with that. And yes, the Padres are going to struggle to score runs this year.

But the extreme manifestations of both of those opposing forces — the strength of the Dodgers’ pitching and the weakness of the Padres’ hitting — rarely can combine for such a series as the one we just saw. The Padres swung at about a league-average rate of pitches outside the zone. They made overall contact at a rate only slightly below league average, even if their in-zone contact rate was bad. They hit a number of balls really hard, and in a larger sample size, the majority of those would go for hits. This was a three game series to open the season, and that’s why it’s under the microscope, and that’s why the Padres fan base is probably feeling pretty rough right now.

But this could probably happen to a lot of teams if we rolled the dice enough times, especially if we could send them up against a rotation headed by a prime Kershaw. This is the nature of baseball. The Padres will score a run, the game will find a middle ground, and we’ll wait for the universe to select its next victim.





Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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Chaco Chickenmember
6 years ago

Carson?