Since 2015, home runs have been flying out of ballparks all over the country, and not just in bandboxes like Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Launch angle became the new mantra, and hitters tried to avoid ground balls.
As Tom Verducci lamented last year in Sports Illustrated, the game had become “driven by the pursuit of the most blunt of outcomes: strikeouts by pitchers and home runs by batters. Both outcomes… render useless defense, base running and teamwork.” In San Diego and other baseball cities, teams have moved away from this all-or-nothing approach.
”We do not want to swing at pitchers’ pitches (borderline strikes) early in the count,” manager Andy Green told James Clark of East Village Times this week. “We want to be stubborn and find our pitch.”
Matt Stairs, who joined the Padre pitching coach revolving door this year, has made improving the hitters’ approach at the plate a priority. As a team, the Padres ranked dead last in on-base percentage at .299, the only team in all of baseball below the .300 mark. A batting average of .234 also earned San Diego last place.
Stairs has taken on a huge challenge, but he brings with him the credibility that comes from 19 years in MLB and a batting line of .262/.356/.477/.832. Last year, he left the broadcast booth for a job as hitting coach for the Phillies. He has been credited with improving the plate discipline of Philadelphia’s young hitters, who rose from 29th to 24th in on-base percentage in 2017.
As a symptom of the Padres’ low batting average and on-base percentage last year, only 69 of San Diego’s 189 home runs occurred with runners on base. Too many also came late in games when the outcome had already been decided. Frankly, even for a fanatic baseball/Padres’ fan like myself, the swing-for-the-fences mentality led to downright boring baseball.
FanGraphs’ gurus consider a 20.0 K% (strikeout percentage) and an 8.0 BB% (base on ball percentage) average, and too many regulars in the Padres’ lineup last year fell in the below average categories. Of the position players who played at least 100 games, only Wil Myers (10.8%), Matt Szczur (15.0%) and Carlos Asuaje (8.2%) walked at an average or above rate. Several regulars in the lineup had strikeout totals considered poor (25.0%) or even awful (27.5%), including Wil Myers, (27.7%) Cory Spangenberg (26.3%), Austin Hedges (29.3%), and Hunter Renfroe (29.2%).
The spotlight has been on Renfroe, but he’s hardly alone in giving away at-bats. Reportedly, Stairs started working in Arizona with several players in mid-January and will continue to preach his mantra of not giving away at-bats.
Obviously, the Padres cannot even dream of contending with the downright anemic batting numbers of the last few years. However, a simple, focused team-wide emphasis on not giving up at-bats led by Stairs may yield results. For the Padres, there’s no place to go but up.