Padres Editorial: Ignoring Defensive Value and the Repercussions

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(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
(AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)

The 2014 San Diego Padres weren’t fun to watch. They were actually quite painful to watch at times. 1-0. 2-1. 3-2. They had a talent for being in close, often times one-run games, and always falling just short. The pitching was always there. They boasted one of the top ten rotations in all of baseball with one of the top two bullpens. As a unit the Padres pitching staff was one of the best the league had to offer. The offense was always the problem. They could not score enough runs to back up great pitching performances on an almost nightly basis.

Anyone who watched the Padres in 2014 knew the problem. Going into the offseason, new general manager A.J. Preller and ownership knew the problem. A.J. Preller knew the problem and had a plan from ownership on how to tackle that problem. Spend, Spend, Spend. Trade, Trade, Trade. The plan was set. The Padres would trade from an above average farm system to push up the time-table on winning by improving a historically awful offense. Prospects were expendable and last years starters were given the boot. All in the name of offense, offense, offense.

Obviously by now we all know by now that this didn’t work. And to be quite honest, it was a series of moves destined for failure. Not because Preller was supposed to predict the poor performance of Matt Kemp and Will Middlebrooks. Not because Preller was supposed to know that Wil Myers was going to get hurt. And not even because Preller was supposed to guess that both Justin Upton and Derek Norris would suddenly crater after an all-star caliber first two months of the season. None of this can be blamed on Preller.

What can be entirely blamed on Preller, or at least Preller and the Padres ownership, is the Padres strategy in improving their offense. They certainly got players with some sustained track records. Matt Kemp was nearly an MVP a few years back (and arguably should have been in hindsight). Justin Upton was a consistently above average hitter with 30 home run power. Wil Myers was entering only his 2nd full season with superstar potential. Will Middlebrooks was coming off a down year but still was young with a potential for a bounce back to his rookie year performance. Finally Derek Norris was coming off an All Star caliber year. They went out and got players that had offensive track records that they thought could help improve the worst offense in the league from 2015.

As stated before, the issue wasn’t with the players they got. These guys had proven offensive track records. AJ Preller couldn’t have known that they would all underperform his expectations, as well as underperform many of the preseason projections. Many saw this team as a team who would be over .500 and perhaps would finish with somewhere between 83 and 87 wins. Some even went far enough to say that the Padres would sneak into the playoffs. The talent was there. There were some holes that weren’t addressed (a weak infield with no real shortstop being the main hole) but the Padres seemed to have enough to compete this season.

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Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego

If the pitching was there, with obvious upgrades in James Shields, Brandon Morrow, Craig Kimbrel, and Brandon Maurer, and the offense was there, with all the new weapons that Preller traded for, why do the Padres sit eight games under .500 with a ten game deficit in the National League West? Obviously the Padres offense has greatly underperformed projections, while the pitching staff has not quite been what it was last season. But those explanations are too simple. The offense has been better than last year, but not by much. The real issue with this year’s team has to do with the reason the pitching staff has underperformed projections and underperformed last year’s staff. It is really as simple as defense.

I wrote a previous article about trading offense for defense and how strong defense has generally translated to successful teams in years past. Teams rarely can be at the bottom of the league in advanced metrics and still advance to the playoffs, let alone win a World Series. The Padres fit this poor defensive mold entirely. In all the offseason changes, a generalized decrease in defensive value all around the diamond was executed. The phrase “defense wins championships” could not hold any more true. But for the Padres, this sentiment was recklessly ignored.

From day one of A.J. Preller’s grand rebuilding experiment, there was a noted, and at times blatant, disregard for the importance of defense and defensive alignments. Preller acquired Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Matt Kemp to play the three outfield positions. All three were below average or at the very most average defenders at their positions. Upton was average. Kemp was far below average. Myers near average as well. The issue was putting one of them in center field so they all could play at the same time. Myers isn’t a center fielder. And he more than showed that on the field in his limited playing time at the position. Beyond that, the Padres downgraded greatly from the tandem of Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera to Derek Norris. The infield has been a general downgrade from last year’s numbers beyond that. From the start of Preller’s tenure offense was the concern, with defense being an afterthought.

To better understand why these differences exist between 2014 to 2015, it helps to compare the Padres pitching staff and defense from 2014 to the Padres pitching and defense from 2015. In 2014 the Padres pitching staff was fourth in the league in ERA as well as third in FIP. Beyond that the Padres defense as a unit ranked 9th in UZR and 12th in defensive value for the 2014 season. In terms of specific defense the Padres outfield was ranked 14th in UZR with a positive overall value while the infield also produced positive UZR scores at 3rd and 1st while producing only slightly negative scores at SS/2nd. Out of the eight positions on the field the Padres were producing a positive UZR score at six of them with barely below average scores at the other two.

Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego
Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego

Beyond the defense in the field, the Padres also had two of the best catchers in all of baseball helping the cause. Both Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal ranked in the top five or ten in the league in RAA, plus calls, and plus calls per game. RAA measures runs above average, or how good a catcher is above average in terms of other players at the same position on the field. On the other hand, plus calls measure how many traditional balls are called strikes while that catcher is catching. Obviously plus calls per game measures how often a catcher “steals strikes” in the average game.

It is clear based on these numbers that the Padres pitching staff was helped greatly by a strong defense behind them as well as two great catchers calling games behind the plate. There is a lot of disagreement on the actual effect of pitching framing and having a good catcher behind the plate, but the 2014 Padres were an example of this dynamic at work. Strong defense and pitching can take a team to a World Series. Just look at the 2014 Royals and Giants as an example of this. The issue for the Padres is that in his quest to rebuild the offense, Preller completely ignored what was a logical regression in defensive prowess around the diamond.

The defense has been bad at various positions all around the diamond for the Padres in 2015. If not entirely bad at certain positions, the defense has most certainly been a step down from what it was in 2014. We’ll start with the Padres overall pitching numbers so far in 2015. The Padres currently sit 19th in the league in earned run average while they are 15th in team FIP. By xFIP the Padres are a little bit better at 11th in the league but the point still remains. The only tangible difference between this year and last year beyond a simple explanation of pitcher’s performance is the defense behind the pitching staff. This is why you see better xFIP/FIP numbers for the Padres staff with a regression for ERA from last year.

This year in team UZR the Padres rank dead last so far in 2015 with a negative rating of -31.6. In terms of defensive value the Padres also rank near the bottom at 28th in the league. These numbers serve to emphasis the vast difference between the Padres 2014 defense and the Padres 2015 defense. Specifically the Padres outfield defense is the worst culprit at 29th in the league. Beyond that the Padres have gotten negative value at every single infield position in terms of UZR. This is also quite a downgrade from last year. In sum the Padres have negative value according to UZR at every position on the field except for catcher.

Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego
Mandatory Credit: UT San Diego

In terms of specifics at catcher, the only position on the field that has provided positive defensive value, Derek Norris has not quite been the defensive weapon that both Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera were last year. In terms of the 2015 season, Derek Norris ranks 12th in RAA as well as 12th in plus calls. For comparison Grandal ranks 2nd in both of those categories in almost 1,200 less pitches received than Derek Norris on this season. Norris has definitely greater improved his defensive game over years past, and is actually a decent defender in his own right, but he still trails Grandal by nearly seven runs in RAA and by fifty plus calls. Grandal is clearly the superior defensive receiver and perhaps the downgrade has negatively impacted the Padres pitching staff this season.

An interesting caveat to this scenario is how good Austin Hedges has been behind the plate. He is at nearly the same RAA and plus calls as Norris with nearly a sixth of the playing time. If Hedges was given full playing time over Norris it would seem he would far exceed both Norris and Grandal’s numbers and would most likely be the top defensive catcher in all of baseball by a wide margin. It is hard to speculate on whether the Padres pitching staff would be superior with Hedges getting full playing time when compared to Norris but the poor defense in the field would still provide some negative value and impact the Padres pitching staff in a negative manner.

One interesting thing to look at with Hedges is how the staff has pitched in games that he has caught. So far Hedges has caught in fourteen games for the Padres. In those games Padres starters have given up only thirty-eight runs while the bullpen gave up only eleven runs. This is obviously a small sample size but forty-nine runs scored in fourteen games caught by Hedges is a pretty good number. On top of that, Ian Kennedy has had three or four of his best starts this season with Hedges catching. The same can be said about Tyson Ross’ best start on the season. Obviously these are just conjectures but Austin Hedges is obviously the superior catcher to Derek Norris at least in terms of the quantifiable data.

So defense is the Padres problem this season. The pitching staff has obviously underperformed in terms of home runs given up and ERA, while the offense has not done as much as they were supposed to. We knew the defense was going to be troublesome this season but there was not enough consideration of what effect this defensive downgrade would have on both the Padres pitching staff and the Padres as a team. The Padres have under-performed expectations and projections as a team. Offense, pitching and defense. All of facets of the team’s game has been subpar. Going forward, AJ Preller and Padres ownership needs to take stock of how this experiment has failed, why it has failed, and focus more on defense in order to rebuild a winning team in San Diego. Without an emphasis on strong defense, the Padres will not be able to win no matter what offensive weapons they have or who is doing the pitching.

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