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The Padres Pessimist: Regression Candidates for 2020

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Because not everyone’s going to be an All-star, or even all that good.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Alright, all; this is not exactly an article I was looking forward to writing. But I’m a man of my word, so as I mentioned in the comments of my earlier Padres Optimist article where I wrote about potential breakout candidates, here’s a few Padres players that believe are unfortunately poised to regress. Now, to be clear, regression in this context means reverting to a worse state or condition. So, you will not see me continue to beat up some of the current punching bags, such as Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer, or Austin Hedges, among others. Unfortunately, those guys have been on a downward trend for a few years now, therefore they are ineligible for this list. Besides, I think we’ve all spent enough time bashing discussing the shortcomings of those players recently.

No, in this case, I’ll be looking at players that may not repeat the success they had last year in 2019. Now, this doesn’t mean that a player will play badly, per se, in 2020; they just may not produce at quite the level they did last year. So, with that in mind, who am I thinking of? Sharpen your pitchforks, light your torches, and come at me, bro:

Regression Candidate #1: SS Fernando Tatis, Jr.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at San Diego Padres
Hoo boy, I’m going to get some hate mail on this one.
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

I told you to get your pitchforks ready.

FTJ burst onto the scene last year. A non-roster invitee to Spring Training, Tatis played his way onto the opening day roster with a blend of talent and maturity the Padres just hadn’t seen from a rookie in years, if not ever. Despite being slowed by injuries and only playing in 84 games in 2019, FTJ impressed, flashing an incredible blend of athleticism and headiness in the moment. I mean, this is a guy who scored on a damn POP-UP to 2nd base (jump to 2:14 for the referenced play).

Simply put, Tatis played like a All-star, in his first taste of MLB action, and probably would have been the NL’s Rookie of the Year had he not missed almost half the year. So why, why in the name of all that’s good in baseball, am I thinking Tatis is going to regress? Well, take a look at FTJ’s slash line: .317/.379/.590 in 334 ABs, 22 HRs, 53 RBIs, 16 SBs, 110 Ks...

Wait... 110 Ks?

Unfortunately, you read that correctly. FTJ struck out nearly a third of the time he recorded an at-bat.

FTJ’s advanced stats bear out his aggressive approach at the plate. He recorded a swinging strike percentage of 27%, 8% higher than the league average, and swinging at the first pitch over 36% of the time (a little more than 6% above league average). He also made contact only 64.8% of the time, compared to the league average of 74.3%. He was particularly bad against offspeed pitches, batting only .191 on them in 2019 while feasting on fastballs. So how was he able to have such a great batting average for a guy in his first year? Yes, he did great against fastballs, but the bigger reason is why I embedded his baserunning highlights from last year; his speed. FTJ had a great BABIP last year, logging a .410 BABIP in 2019, primarily because he was able to leg out a bunch of balls that otherwise would have been ground outs (Tatis is in the Top 5% of MLB players with a sprint speed of 29.3 ft/s, and an average of 4.17 seconds to 1B). As FTJ tempers his play/slows down a bit, you can expect that some of those plays will then get turned into outs. But most likely, you can also expect opposing pitchers to take advantage of his aggressive approach at the plate, feeding him a steady diet of offspeed pitches or getting him to chase pitches that he can’t make solid contact on/misses entirely, now that the book is out on the young phenom.

Now, do I think FTJ will be bad in 2020? Absolutely not. I’m thinking more that he’ll produce a little closer to his minor league averages, slashing .285/.360/.480 or slightly better, with about 20 HRs, 80 RBIs, and a metric crap-load of electric plays both on defense and on the base paths. Think more “sophomore slump” of a year for FTJ, as he plays the cat and mouse game with opposing pitchers. He will adjust; he’s too talented not to.

Just don’t say I didn’t warn you that he’ll probably struggle next year, especially early.

Regression Candidate #2: RHP Chris Paddack.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Milwaukee Brewers
Yikes; I can actually hear some of you cursing at me right now...
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

So yeah, I’m not happy about this pick, either. Like FTJ, Chris Paddack impressed early and often in his first Major League Spring Training in 2019. Despite the organization’s intention of starting Paddack out in the minors, Paddack forced his way onto the starting rotation after a stellar Training Camp, flashing a very good fastball, an excellent changeup, and a still in development curveball. Despite a brief rough patch, “The Sheriff” recorded a 3.33 ERA with 153Ks over 140.2 IP while holding opponents to a 0.981 WHIP and a .204 opposing batting average. Armed with a full off-season of development and a bulldog’s attitude, the sky seems to be the limit with the young RHP. So why do I think Paddack’s going to regress in 2020? Again, we’ll dip into the advanced stats for this one.

In 2019, Paddack produced a strike on his 1st pitch an incredible 71.3% of the time. League average for last year was only 60.9% of the time. As a result, Paddack was often able to get to 0-2 counts, again at an incredible 40% rate per plate appearance, more than 14% higher than league averages. I think it’s reasonable to think that, similar to FTJ, now that the book is out on Paddack, hitters will begin to lay off Paddack’s initial offering. In 2019, those batters swung at his pitches at a 52.3% rate, about 5% higher than league average. Instead, they’ll hold off, waiting for Paddack to drop his still developing curveball, which batters hit at a .267 rate in 2019.

Like FTJ, Paddack won’t be bad in 2020, per se. He has excellent location on his pitches, and he’ll continue to refine his 3rd offering, especially if hitters start laying off on his fastball and changeup. Just don’t expect him to repeat a sub 1.0 WHIP or a 3.33 ERA, like he did in 2019. I’m thinking he’ll be closer to 160-170 Ks, with a 1.2 WHIP and a 3.75 ERA over about 180 IP on the year. Again, he won’t be bad, just not 2019-level good, with his rougher patches likely coming in June/July as hitters gather enough data to refine their approach against the young Texan.

Regression Candidate #3: RHP Kirby Yates.

MLB: San Diego Padres at Seattle Mariners
Now that’s just mean...
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

OK, this one is the one I actually feel the worst about. Kirby Yates has been as close to a revelation as we get in San Diego, a true out of nowhere success story. Undrafted out of college and a journeyman pitcher for most of his career, including 2 stints where he was picked up off the waiver wire, Yates came to San Diego in 2017. He transformed himself into a shutdown closer after abandoning his changeup and curveball to instead utilize a split-finger fastball he developed that Spring Training. He turned himself into a lockdown set-up man before becoming the Padres’ closer after Brad Hand was traded in 2018, and he’s been lights out since taking over the role. He was the Padres’ sole representative as an All-star in 2019, at the tender age of 32 years old. His 2019 stats were nothing short of dominant: 41 saves in 44 opportunities, 60.2 IP, 101 Ks, a 0.89 WHIP, and a FIP of 1.30.

Yates’ career reads like something out of a movie, except you wouldn’t watch it because it’s so unbelievable. Yet, it’s happened, and most of the peripherals say he’s going to stay on top of his game for a few more years, at least.

So why am I thinking Yates is going to regress in 2020?

Part of it has to do with his age; Yates will turn 33 at the end of March, the point where many MLB players suddenly start falling off a cliff, production-wise. Additionally, Yates has essentially become a 2-pitch pitcher: last year in 2019, Yates threw his slider less than 1% of the time, a total of 9 pitches, according to Statcast. That’s a troubling sign, but not in and of itself a deathknell. No, the troubling sign for Kirby is that his 4-seam fastball, which he threw roughly 57% of the time in 2019, saw a .032 jump in opposing batting average from 2018 to 2019, from .184 to .216, and a more importantly, a jump in opponent slugging percentage, from .330 to .343 (mainly because the only 2 HRs Kirby gave up last year were off his fastball, but still).

Yates has essentially given up on the deception part of his game, and become almost completely reliant on his fastball and split-finger. I can’t exactly blame him, given how his 3rd offerings have been hit over the years, and that his fastball and split-finger are in the upper echelon of MLB in terms of movement. He’s made himself into an All-star with these 2 pitches, so it makes sense. Unfortunately, he’s also cut his margin of error down significantly, as he’s now far more predictable with his pitching and is completely relying on his vertical/horizontal movement, rather than out-thinking his opponents. Now with 2 years worth of data to back them up, I see opposing batters laying off Kirby’s split-finger more, waiting instead to attack and drive his fastball. Again, Yates won’t likely be bad in 2020; he’ll still rack up lots of Ks and get plenty of save opportunities while converting most of them. But I also think he’ll get hit a bit harder, something to the tune of .230 opposing batting average, and his hard hit percentage jumping from the mid-30s that it has been the last few years, and creeping closer to a 40% mark. If THAT happens, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Yates traded sometime around the Trade Deadline.

Well, writing that article sure did suck. To be clear, I don’t think anybody on this list will perform particularly badly in 2020, and I’m really hoping they don’t. I just think they’re going to go through some decidedly rough patches during the year, making 2020 look worse than it probably would otherwise. Overall, I see the team struggling out of the gate, at least for the first 20-30 games, playing .400-ish ball, then starting to gel and take off around May.
Am I off-base? Completely out of my gourd? Missing a few names that I should have listed instead? Let me have it in the comments below.

In the meantime, I’m going to go offer up a sacrifice to the Baseball Gods to try and keep any of this from coming true. Anyone know where I can get a live chicken?