On the eve of the 2017 season, it was pretty clear where the Padres stood in the National League. After filling out their rotation with free agent dumpster-dive players, and preparing to start the season with a roster half made up of rookies and players only in the first few years of their respective careers, the Padres were well on their way to the worst record in baseball.
However, somewhere along the way that plan went awry. Well, the front office will never admit to that being the plan, but it’s pretty clear this team had no hope of competing anytime soon, at least in 2017 and most likely 2018 as well. But no one could have expected the Padres to exceed expectations like this.
Now I won’t mince words here, the Padres have been pretty awful this year. In fact, they have been downright unwatchable at times. With that being said, this team is not anywhere near as awful as most of us expected. At present, the Padres sit with an even 50 wins to go with 62 losses, good for the fifth worst record in baseball. Surprisingly enough, the Padres have four teams with worse records than them, including one team in their own division! (But who would have seriously thought the San Francisco Giants would be sitting here in the second week of August with a .391 winning percentage?).
Anyway, I am leading myself off topic. Let’s talk about one of the reasons the Padres have over-performed so far this season. A pretty big reason for that over-performance has to be the season that Jose Pirela is having to this point. When Travis Jankowski and Alex Dickerson went down with injuries early in the season, it was unclear how the Padres were going to align the outfield. Both Franchy Cordero and Allen Cordoba saw playing time out there, with Cordero seeing more playing time in center field following the injury to Margot, but Pirela has been the one most consistent piece of the Padres since his initial call-up in the beginning of June. Since then, Pirela has gotten almost everyday playing time, mostly in left field but also with some spot starts at second and first.
A four for four night fresh off a two-home run night is enough to grab attention, and Pirela has done just that. Sure, he still lacks a real defensive home, as he has been a slightly below average defender in left field, but the offense has been real to this point. So far in 212 plate appearances this season, and fresh off his four hit night, Pirela has slashed .299/.341/.534 with a .235 ISO and 128 wRC+. The numbers don’t really jump off the page if you compare Pirela to players like Aaron Judge or Mike Trout, but very quietly Pirela has been the Padres’ most consistent hitter over the last two-plus months. Among Padres hitters with at least 200 plate appearances, Pirela has been the best hitter, with his 128 wRC+, better than Wil Myers, Yangervis Solarte, Hunter Renfroe, Manuel Margot, Cory Spangenberg, and Austin Hedges. Yeah, that’s not the most imposing group of players on a rebuilding Padres team, but who could have guessed that Pirela would be at the top of that list this late in the season.
So far this season, Pirela has made some serious adjustments to his swing in order to have more sustained offensive success. The most obvious change for Pirela has been in his batted ball profile, as he has seen a significant increase in his fly ball percentage with a simultaneous decrease in his ground ball percentage.
The changes are even more apparent when you look at his batted ball profile from when he was in the Yankees’ minor league system to where he was at the beginning of this year in Triple-A with the El Paso Chihuahuas. Not only is Pirela adding more lift to his swing, but he is also making more consistent contact to the opposite field and up the middle than he was in years past. On top of that, Pirela is swinging more than in years past, and making better contact because of it.
So Pirela is swinging more, hitting more fly balls, and making more hard contact. It remains to be seen if this will continue to be a recipe for success for Pirela going forward, but so far his changed approach has made him into a major league ballplayer. He still needs to do on the other sides of the ball, specifically in his defense and baserunning, but Pirela is on pace to be a three and a half win player over a full season by Fangraphs fWAR calculation. If he can keep up that pace over the rest of this season and beyond, the Padres will have no choice but to make him a part of their plans going forward.