With the Padres first Spring Training game just a month away, it’s thankfully time to start looking at the 2020 season. No matter how you look at it, 2020 is a big year for the franchise. Ownership (primarily Ron Fowler) have publicly committed to “winning” this year, adding some additional pressure. So barring a dramatic, last minute trade or signing, what does 1st year manager Jayce Tingler have to do in 2020 to transition the current group of Padres from bums to pre-dive Terry Malloy status? Here are my thoughts on what should be on Jayce Tingler’s to-do list.
Improve the Infield Defense.
I linked to the East Village Times article in my Winter League report today, but to the surprise of no-one who watched more than a handful of games last year, the Padres infield defense was bad. How bad, you ask? How about MLB-worst bad, according to Statcast’s newly released Infield Outs Above Average (OAA) data? By the numbers, the Padres infield cost the team 23 outs last year based on various mistakes, 23 outs that an average defense arguably would have made.
A perfect example from 2019 is the defensive play of Fernando Tatis, Jr. While FTJ often impressed with his athleticism in the field, the numbers show he did not often translate to success. FTJ often ended up costing the team outs by committing throwing errors, resulting in a success rate of only 83% against an expected 88%. Tatis was hardly the only culprit: Former Padre now Brewer Luis Urias garnered a -1 OAA rating, 1B Eric Hosmer a -6 OAA. Even the nominally steady, $300 million man Manny Machado earned a -2 OAArating at the hot corner. Only now-retired Ian Kinsler garnered a positive rating, which might explain why he played as much as he did in 2019.
So what’s Jayce got to do? Now, I’m not going to pretend OAA is a perfect stat; better positioning and shifting players around the diamond can mitigate or even nullify some of what OAA implies (as several folks stated in the Winter Leagues Forum). But simply, the Padres can’t afford a repeat in 2020 where they turn nominal outs into additional base runners. Tingler, along with new infield coach Bobby Dickerson, will need to rein in FTJ and newly acquired Jurickson Profar, while finding a way to restore Hosmer’s former Gold Glove-level defense from years past, or finding at least a more effective infield combination when injuries strike. That also means once again developing several young players on short notice: Esteban Quiroz, Owen Miller, Ty France, or even a long shot, like non-roster Spring Training invitee Hudson Potts.
Score more runs.
Ok, this admittedly falls into the blindingly obvious category, but it still bears mentioning. Simply, the Padres have been one of the worst hitting teams in MLB for years. You can blame Petco Park’s offense-suppressing design, the lack of talent on the field, what have you. But simply, the Padres can’t keep producing bottom of the MLB offense and hope to contend. Based on Statcast’s Expected Outcome batting stats, which looks at the quality of and amount of contact across at-bats rather than outcomes (batting skill over batting results, if you will), the Padres finished 2nd to last, with a team xwOBA of .295, with only the Detroit Tigers finishing lower in MLB. No surprise then, that the team finished with a Team Batting Average .237. Since 2015, the Padres have never finished above 27th in the league in terms of xwOBA or in actual batting average, and have usually been either the worst or 2nd to worst team.
So what’s Jayce got to do? Though I’d love to also see the team turn back the clock and start swiping bases like it’s the late 1980s/early 1990s, I don’t think we need to go that far. I’m a big believer in process; anything else (in my mind, at least) relies too much on luck or your opponent screwing up. Start with a solid process, and more often than not, you’ll get a good result. Jayce, and hitting coach Damion Easley, need to get the batters focused on increasing their barrel rates, along with pitch/strike zone recognition. Yes, this essentially boils down to “don’t swing at bad pitches; when you do swing, make good contact.” But fundamentally sound, skilled batters tend to do pretty well scoring runs, regardless of park and defense. I admit my view might be overly simplistic, but to support my case, take a look at MLB’s 2019 Playoff teams and their xwOBA: only the Cardinals and the Brewers made the Playoffs and finished outside the Top 10 in terms of team xwOBA. To me, that indicates clubs that emphasize a solid process at the plate, rather than selling out for homers. Make good contact, and the runs will come more often than not.
Don’t burn out the bullpen, especially early in the season.
We don’t need to rehash this one too much. While Padres starters actually pitched decently in 2019, their inability to go deep into games, especially early in the season, overly taxed a bullpen that was struggling with ineffectiveness and injuries at the same. An argument could be made that the team gave away wins unnecessarily during this period, eventually leading to the late season collapse that led to the firing of then manager Andy Green, despite playing .500 ball at the All-Star break. This led many fans and pundits to state that GM A.J. Preller needed to send some of that #HotTalentLava packing in exchange for a proven, front-line MLB starter. However, that’s not what happened, unless you think the recently acquired Zach Davies is going to suddenly morph into that guy (which personally, I don’t).
The Padres seemingly didn’t like the price tags on a number of free-agent starting pitchers this winter, and A.J. Preller also doesn’t want to take opportunities away from a plethora of top pitching prospects, including (hopefully later, not sooner) call-ups for Luis Patiño and MacKenzie Gore. As a result, 2020 looks pretty similar in terms of needing to manage each starter’s pitch count as we did in 2019 while hoping our young starters progress. Projected starters Garrett Richards, Dinelson Lamet, and even Chris Paddack will likely remain on some sort of innings limit. Add in the fact that potential back-end starters Joey Lucchesi or Cal Quantrill may only go 5-6 innings a start, and the bullpen is looking at another heavy workload this year.
So what’s Jayce got to do? This is why this off-season’s acquisitions of Drew Pomeranz and Pierce Johnson, along with re-signing Craig Stammen, were so important. Essentially, the Padres will look to use the “Yankees model,” rolling out a bullpen with a shut-down closer in Kirby Yates, and using multiple high-talent/reliable arms ahead of him to preserve a lead .
Jayce, then, has to rotate the load amongst his relievers (I know, easier said than done). He can’t keep going back to the well and asking the same relievers night after night to put in hard work. Throw Andres Munoz or Jose Castillo out one night, then roll with Craig Stammen and Drew Pomeranz another. Make sure Matt Strahm and Luis Perdomo also get in on the fun. If they get hurt or have an off-night, call on Javy Guerra, Adrian Morejon, Michel Baez, or even Trey Wingenter or Gerardo Reyes, depending on the situation. When injuries strike, as they inevitably will, call on that legit depth in Kyle Barraclough, Chih-Wei Hu and Jimmy Yacabonis, all signed to minor league deals this off-season and only a short plane flight away.
Now, is this everything the team and Tingler need to do this season? Probably not, so feel free to add your own in the comments. Will this all work out? No idea. Most folks are projecting the Padres to finish with around 77 wins in 2020.
But man, I really hope it does. The Padres last finished a season above .500 way back in 2010. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting that streak to end; why not this year?