Weeks ago, I wrote that a key matchup in the NL West was the Padres versus everybody. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but it’s still extremely true and San Diego is putting together a run that looks like it’s got legs to continue well into the season.
So how is this squad making a playoff run after an abysmal 2019 campaign?
One, the new outfield corps
A few deals to send six (SIX!) outfielders from their organisation elsewhere and picking up sparkplug Tommy Pham from Tampa Bay and surprising all-around talent Trent Grisham from Milwaukee has San Diego looking sharp, smart, and ready to compete in the field. Looking at what the six former Padres are doing this season, the production and defense San Diego are getting from their outfield make the trades seem comically lopsided.
Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot are playing a platoon role in Tampa, Travis Jankowski has only notched 13 plate appearances over 12 games in Cincinnati with a disappointing OPS of .237, and Nick Martini didn’t make the Phillies team in 2020. Franchy Cordero is slashing only .154/.185/.231 over 11 games with the Royals, and the best of the bunch is Franmil Reyes, who’s played in 21 games with Cleveland, leads the team in OPS at .918 and sits second in RBI with 15. Overall, Trent Grisham’s performance is putting the Padres outfield castoffs to shame.
Grisham, who began the season having only 51 major league games under his belt, is now the Padres’ centre field stud. At bat, he’s carrying a strong .250/.377/.455 batting line and is third in total bases behind Fernando Tatis Jr. and Wil Meyers.
Defensively, Grisham has shown his endurance by leading the league in CF appearances with 25 as of August 19. His considerable speed (top 20 in the league at 28.9 ft/sec) and good glove are also putting him on highlight reels around the league.
Tommy Pham falls into the tough breaks category. He came over from the Rays in the Renfroe/Margot deal with a history of being an energy guy with iron man tendencies, above average speed, and a history of hitting 20 or more homers for the last few years.
His tools hadn’t really come together yet in 2020, despite leading the league in stolen bases, and he’s expected to miss at least 4-6 weeks with a broken hand suffered at bat on August 16.
Two, depth in the face of injury and rebuilding
The names keep piling up on the injured list for San Diego, which has led manager Jayce Tingler to make moves to stay competitive with Colorado and Arizona in their pursuit of the Dodgers atop the NL West.
Pham is out for the foreseeable future, joining catcher Francisco Mejia and closer Kirby Yates (more on him below) and the Padres are looking to their bench to keep the momentum going in the right direction.
Mejia and platoon-mate Austin Hedges split catching duties evenly prior to his bruised thumb. Third catcher Luis Torrens was recalled from the alternate training site to provide backup, but otherwise Hedges appears prepared to take on the bulk of work until Mejia returns from the injured list after a 10-day stint. Fortunately for San Diego, Hedges has slightly better offensive numbers than Mejia (.128/.190/.282 for Hedges versus .079/.146/.184 for Mejia), though the team will likely rely on DH Josh Naylor to continue picking up the significant slack.
Standout closer Kirby Yates, who’s reignited his career in recent years, is slated for surgery to remove bone chips in his throwing elbow and is finished for season. MLB reported on Yates’ recent career uptick:
“Yates arrived as a waiver claim early in the 2017 season, and he developed a splitter that became one of the nastiest pitches in the sport. In four seasons since, Yates owns a 2.55 ERA with an average of 14 strikeouts per nine innings. He was named to the ’19 All-Star team and was first-team All-MLB last year, as well.”
Not an insignificant loss for a team in the thick of contention for one of the expanded playoff spots in the National League. The bright spot here is having ten-year veteran and former All-Star Drew Pomeranz to step into the closer role. Pomeranz has maintained an ERA of 0.00 and a 0.44 WHIP over 10 appearances in 2020 so far.
Together, the San Diego pitching staff are throwing the hardest fastballs in all of baseball. Last year they sat at 14th in velocity, and in 2018 they were 27th in Major League Baseball. As MLB’s Mike Petriello reported, “If we look at the 10 Padres pitchers averaging 94 mph or more on any type of fastball, only two — Chris Paddack and Cal Quantrill — pitched most of a full season for San Diego in 2019. The rest are either new [to the team] (like Pomeranz or Pierce Johnson) or spent a decent portion of their year with the 2019 Padres in the Minors or rehabbing (like Dinelson Lamet or Luis Patiño).”
Along with fellow bullpen mates Quantrill (who arguably could and should be vying for a starting spot) and Emilio Pagán, Pomeranz and the hard-throwing staff represent the steady force in run prevention that’s allowing the Padres’ firecracker offence to take centre stage.
Three, absolutely lights-out bats
As of August 20, the Padres are the only team in MLB history to record a grand slam in four consecutive games. Talk about run support. Star shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. leads the league in home runs (12), RBI (29), stolen bases (tied with others at 6), and runs scored (25). He also ranks in the top 5 in hits, slugging and OPS.
Tatis Jr. and the exciting core group have clearly influenced the entire Padres organisation. The team ranks first in the National League for stolen bases this season with 26, after finishing the 2019 campaign ranked ninth of 15. It’s a similar look for total runs and home runs (both ranked second in 2020 versus thirteenth and tenth, respectively, in 2019).
The offensive explosion from their top four batters, Grisham, Tatis Jr., Manny Machado, and Eric Hosmer, would be enough to ignite the team and make them competitive, but one of the most surprising players to break through in 2020 for the Padres has been rookie utility man Jake Cronenworth.
“Crone” came over to San Diego from the Rays as their number 19 prospect expected to fill gaps as needed and bounce between the 28-man roster and the alternate training site. Instead, he’s part of the Rookie of the Year conversation and making a case to play every day with the big league team.
Cronenworth, like Grisham, has serious wheels at 28.5 ft/sec, good for top 30 in the game. Not only does this give his expected stats a boost, but it increases his range factor in the field as well. The “Crone Zone” is where ground balls go to die, according to Padre faithful.
Per MLB’s Thomas Harrigan and BaseballSavant he’s batting .306/.358/.592, which is considerably better than his minor league line, and ranks among the best in the league in StatCast metrics like sweet-spot percentage, exit velocity, and barrel rate. Just as impressive is his eye at the plate. An excellent K-rate and whiff percentage demonstrate an elevated approach to pitch selection. As unexpected as his performance has been, it’s just one of the elements that’s keeping this quad’s alchemy going.
The Padres are putting together a potential playoff run in a competitive division in addition to an impressive bounce back year. Manager Jayce Tingler has employed some old-school baseball strategies like bunting and stealing bases but has given guys who can mash the ball opportunities to do so. As a team, they’re tops in the league in making solid contact and hitting for power. The result is a San Diego club who’s adaptable enough to adjust to injuries but scrappy and talented enough to get wins from both sides of the ball. The NL West suddenly has a contender on their hands.
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