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Breaking down Padres plate appearance distribution

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Padres manager Andy Green can distribute plate appearances however he likes. Who is getting the most opportunities?

MLB: San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants
Jose Pirela has stood in the batter’s box more than any other Padre this season.
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

A manager’s most important job on game day is setting the lineup. When he assigns batting order positions to players, he is providing them opportunities that add up over the course of a season. Padres manager Andy Green has a tough job on his hands, as he needs to weigh the short-term goal of simply winning a game against the long-term goal of developing his players. There has been a lot of discussion lately about Andy Green’s batting orders and their effects on his players. Now that we’re nearly a third of the way through the season, it’s a good time to evaluate how this team has spread its opportunities around.

If a manager is purely trying to create the best lineup to win games, the best hitters will be near the top of the order and will rack more plate appearances than the rest. Isn’t that what you want, your best hitters getting the most chances to hit across a season? Some players will get more plate appearances because of their hitting profile or their recent performance. Some will get more plate appearances because of their contract status. Sometimes a hitter will get more chances because the team wants them to accumulate the most “reps”, thereby gaining experience that should reap rewards down the road. That’s typically a strategy deployed in spring training or in the minor leagues, where wins are a secondary goal, but for a team like the 2018 Padres, a team with young players still cutting their teeth at this level, shouldn’t that be at least a consideration?

Milwaukee Brewers v San Diego Padres
This is what Jose Pirela looks like shortly before rolling over a ground ball and wasting an out.
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

The Padres leader in plate appearances so far this season is Jose Pirela with 213. Only Freddy Galvis has played in more games, which makes sense since he’s the only shortstop on the roster, but Pirela has benefited by being near the top of the batting order with 13 more PA’s than Galvis. It made sense to find a spot for Pirela as the season started as he surprised everyone by being the Padres’ best hitter in 2017. As a result, he was jammed into an outfield Frankenplatoon with Wil Myers and Hunter Renfroe, essentially sapping starts away from Renfroe before Hunter hit the DL and squeezing Travis Jankowski off the MLB roster to start the season (but they still found room for Matt Szczur?). Carlos Asuaje’s extended struggles opened up playing time at second base, but even then it can be argued that Cory Spangenberg might still deserve a look there. With the most batting opportunities on the team, Pirela has posted a season line of .260/.319/.342, which according to WRC+ is 12% below league average. His 7.5% walk rate is 10th on the team, and when combined with his 20+% K-rate, his bat doesn’t resemble a leadoff hitter. He’s hitting it on the ground more than any position player not named Travis Jankowski, but he’s not fast enough to make a living that way. He doesn’t possess the speed of a leadoff hitter either, yet he’s occupied the leadoff spot on the lineup card ten times this season. All but 30 of his PA’s have come in the top four positions in the lineup, but he has yet to hit a home run this season and his slugging percentage lags behind guys like Cory Spangenberg and Travis Jankowski. Jose Pirela is pretty good at hitting singles, but he’s not really very good at anything else, yet he continues to get more chances to do so than pretty much anyone else on the roster.

Colorado Rockies v San Diego Padres
Don’t talk s#!+ about Eric Hosmer. He’s done his job and he’s earning his money, Chief.
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Coming in at second on the list is Eric Hosmer. This one makes sense. Hosmer is a professional hitter having a nice season, and it’s also the first season of the biggest contract in Padres history. He needs to go out there and earn that money, and he’s doing just that. He’s getting on base consistently, hitting for power, and is always a tough out. He’s exactly the kind of guy who should be somewhere in the 2-3-4 spot of the order, and he’s split his time pretty evenly at #2 & #3. Nobody’s complaining about his spot in the order every day, and nobody’s complaining with what he’s doing up there.

San Diego Padres v Pittsburgh Pirates
Freddy Galvis: professional shortstop, professional accumulator.
Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The player with the third-most plate appearances is Freddy Galvis. As the only shortstop on the roster, he’s been tasked with starting every game this season, so it’s natural that he’ll rack up the PA’s. He started the season pretty hot, while the rest of the team fell on their collective faces, so Andy Green tried to capitalize by slotting him at #2 in the lineup for six games. That didn’t work, as he hit only .167 in those games with no extra base hits, although he did walk at a higher rate than he has elsewhere in the lineup. He’s spent most of the season hitting 6th or 7th, which fits for a relatively light-hitting glove-first shortstop. Let’s consider the #2 placement an anomaly, but it’s worth noting that the 28 PA’s he racked up there might have been better spent by a player who a) better fits the top-of-the-order profile or b) could have used the extra reps to get up to speed or back on track.

Rather than dig down through the rest of the roster, let’s spot-check some dudes and see where they’ve been deployed this season.

St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres
That isn’t blonde hair, those are flames because he’s on fire.
Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

Travis Jankowski has started 22 games, and he was the leadoff hitter in 17 of them. He’s been hitting like a man possessed, so by all means feed him while he’s hungry. The .342/.415/.438 line he’s posting is probably unsustainable with a crazy-high ground ball rate and BABIP, but he’s the perfect table-setter for this team right now. Furthermore, he’s still learning his craft and building value, so let the skinny dog eat. He’s established himself as the ideal table setter for Eric Hosmer.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Diego Padres
Manuel Margot needs as many reps as the team can give him.
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Manuel Margot seems entrenched as the Padres centerfielder for the foreseeable future. He came up as a contact-heavy prospect with the potential to hit for average with modest power and enough speed to be a nuisance on the basepaths. He seems like the kind of hitter that the team should want to cultivate as an option near the top of a batting order, and he’s also a player who needs reps to get past a potential sophomore hangover at the plate. Granted, he’s been injured and might have lasting affects from the fastball to the ribs that incited a minor riot, but the Padres want him to get back to the .263/.313/.409 he posted last year and continue to improve from there. So where has he been slotted in the lineups this year? Let’s see, he’s started 15 games as the leadoff hitter... and then he’s played the other 19 games in the 6-9 lineup positions. Wait, so Freddy Galvis has been hitting in front of Manuel Margot more often than not? Recent performance aside, Margot has the tools to hit for better average, better power, and with better plate discipline than Galvis, and he has more speed to boot. It shouldn’t matter whether he’s been in a funk, if anything he needs more chances to work his way out of it. Galvis is who we thought he would be, so let him rest at the back of the lineup while the kids try to prove themselves. The only point I’ll make here is that the #9 position makes sense for Margot occasionally when the starting pitcher’s platoon split makes a strong enough argument. On those days, Jankowski has the platoon advantage, and later in the game when a lefty reliever is in the game, Margot’s 9-hole becomes a second table setter for Jankowski-Hosmer-etc.

MLB: Washington Nationals at San Diego Padres
Matt Szczur? No disrespect, but... really, dude?
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Szczur has started two games at leadoff. Matt Szczur! Nice guy, decent player, don’t get me wrong, but he’s a fourth outfielder at best. These are the kinds of moves that get people tweeting nastygrams about Andy Green’s managerial style. If the team’s roster gets so short that Matt Szczur is starting a game, I can’t imagine that the other seven or eight guys in the lineup are all looking at him saying, “Yeah, that’s the guy to lead us off!” No. Just no.

When I started pecking away here, I expected to run down more of the roster, but there’s a point to be made and I’ve gone on far enough. Freddy Galvis is who he is, and so is Jose Pirela. Freddy Galvis isn’t going to metamorphose into a slugger, but Franchy Cordero is spreading his wings before our eyes. Jose Pirela won’t turn into Robinson Cano (unless he goes to that doctor in the D.R.), but Christian Villanueva and Cory Spangenberg might be useful players next year and beyond. By continuing to play them ahead of still-developing hitters like Villanueva, Franchy Cordero, Manuel Margot, heck even Franmil Reyes, they are leeching away opportunities from players who have greater potential to be impact players for the Padres this year and down the road.

MLB: Spring Training-San Diego Padres at Chicago Cubs
Luis, please grab the other end of that bat and come report to the team.
Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe Andy Green is trying to protect some guys in the back of the order. Maybe he’s trying to let someone like Pirela either prove his value (or lack thereof), to prompt a roster move to either trade Pirela to a team that needs a 2B/OF (Seattle?) or call up “The Chosen One”, Luis Urias. We don’t know what’s going on in his head or what direction he’s getting from the front office, so it’s hard to gauge the team’s motives, but it would behoove the team’s long-term interests to dole out as many opportunities to developing players as possible. It’s time to quit trying to win each game like it’s Game 7 and look to the future.