The Padres are Building From the Ground Up

Credit: Ryan Cox

Credit: AP Photo

Admit it: you started reading this believing it to be another article about the process of the San Diego Padres, expecting me to inundate you with how the Friars’ farm system sets them up well for several years of affordable pennant hunting.

Admit it: you’re now feeling slightly tricked, starting to believe that maybe this isn’t an article about the Padres’ emerging youth movement, or about how the 2020 season can’t come soon enough for fans of baseball success in America’s Finest City.

A piece of advice: trust your instincts.

No, this is not another article about prospects or process. I think we’ve heard enough of those to fully ingrain the words ‘high ceiling’ on our membranes for several seasons to come.

Instead, this is an article about several winter transactions, and the common thread that connects them all.

You see, led by Clayton Richard and Luis Perdomo, the Padres’ pitching staff ranked third in the majors in 2017 by inducing a 47.5 percent ground ball rate. If you’re a pitcher, ground balls are good, for the simple reason that they are far, far less likely to leave the ballpark. Despite being good at generating good ground balls, however, Padres’ pitchers also performed poorly in run-prevention statistics, ranking 22nd in the league in team ERA (4.70) and team FIP (4.68).

As a result, the Padres appear to have taken one of their rotation’s biggest strengths and committed to helping translate that strength into more wins on the field, doubling down on ground-ball specialists on the mound while investing in significant improvements to the team’s infield defense.

Let’s take a look.

November 22: Padres sign minor league RHP Colten Brewer

We’ll start with one of the team’s most underrated moves of the offseason. Brewer, a fourth-round pick of the Pirates in 2011, has yet to pitch in a major league game in his career and struggled in his first taste of Triple-A ball in the Yankees’ system last summer, allowing 13 earned runs in just 10 innings.

However, what Brewer lacks in track record, he makes up for in bullpen potential, specifically on the ground. His ground ball rate has steadily increased through each of his last few professional seasons, from 48.7 percent with the Pirates’ Single-A team in 2015 to upwards of 60 percent last year. That improvement can be attributed to developing command of his best pitch, a mid-90s cutter with sink that becomes even more effective on the downward angle Brewer generates with his 6-foot-4 frame. In short, the pitch is extremely difficult to elevate. Now a part of the 40-man roster, Brewer could end up being the bullpen’s latest diamond in the rough, largely through his ability to keep balls on the ground.

December 12: Padres acquire RHP Bryan Mitchell from the Yankees

Think of Bryan Mitchell as the organization’s slightly-sexier version of Brewer. The 26-year-old Mitchell comes with a big league resume (32.2 innings with the Yankees last year) and bigger stuff than the career minor leaguer Brewer, and has a chance to start for the Padres in 2018. However, both still have common threads, including a mid-90s heater with downward action and a consequential tendency toward ground balls. In those thirty-plus innings last year, Mitchell put up a 54.1 percent ground ball rate after posting a 55.4 percent mark prior to his call-up. Combine that with a measly 0.5 HR/9 rate, and you have another buy-low option for the Padres’ pitching staff who could thrive in the team’s ground-ball intensive environment.

December 15: Padres acquire SS Freddy Galvis from the Phillies

Of course, none of these ground-ball-heavy pitchers mean much if you don’t have a defense behind them to scoop up baseballs skittering across the dirt. Enter Gold Glove shortstop Freddy Galvis, who gives the Padres an instant boost on the left side of the infield. Advanced metrics don’t rate him too highly (he posted just a 3.6 UZR last season), but the eye test certainly supports the fact that the Friars upgraded defensively with his addition:

Trust me when I say that the third minute of that video is must-watch.

With Galvis covering large swaths of the left side of the infield (and looking as smooth as silk doing it), more of the ground balls Padres’ pitchers induced last year should be able to turn into outs, helping the team’s ability to prevent runs as a whole.

December 27: Padres sign RHP Tyson Ross

You remember Ross, right? While not the dark horse Cy Young contender we used to know him as after injuries derailed his post-Padres career, Ross still profiles as a guy who’s extremely tough to put the ball in the air against. Consider this: in his last full season as a Friar in 2015, Ross finished third in the majors with a 61.5 percent ground ball rate, behind only the Astros’ Dallas Keuchel and the Dodgers’ Brett Anderson.

That Tyson Ross thrived on throwing a slider over 40 percent of the time, a mid-80’s offering that consistently dove glove-side towards the bottom of the zone. Last year, however, Ross’ slider usage fell off by almost 10 percent. If he can return to the pitch mix that made him a success in his first turn in America’s Finest City, and avoid the injuries that have plagued him in each of the last two seasons, Ross perhaps stands to provide the most value of any of the Padres’ additions on the mound.

January 6: Padres sign RHP Kazuhisa Makita

We’ll finish off our list of ground ball specialists with perhaps the most extreme of all: Japanese free agent addition Kazuhisa Makita. Makita, who was profiled by EVT last month, stands out from the first pitch he throws because of his submarine mechanics, which help put all of his pitches on a unique angle to the plate and allow him to thrive despite below-average velocity.

In the scouting report this site wrote on him when he was first signed, it was mentioned that Makita’s mechanics most closely mirror those of Chad Bradford, the sidearmer from the Moneyball days of the Oakland A’s. In his prime, Bradford routinely posted ground ball rates upwards of 65 percent. It would seem that a similar batted ball profile could be expected from Makita, who appears primed for success near the back of the Padres’ bullpen in 2018.

February 19: Padres sign 1B Eric Hosmer

In case you hadn’t heard (and, if that’s the case, I hope the rock you’re living under isn’t too heavy), the Padres recently finished off their offseason with the high-profile signing of one Eric Hosmer.

Hosmer’s bat and leadership abilities have been talked about at considerable length all winter, but one aspect of his game that seems to be more up for debate is his contributions with the glove. Like Galvis, Hosmer is a guy who advanced metrics and the eye test just don’t agree on. By UZR and DRS, he’s cost his team runs in each of the last two seasons, even as a highly-regarded (and statistically-versed) American League scout I spoke with recently called Hosmer one of the best defensive first basemen he’s ever seen. Hmm.

I happen to be in the camp that likes him on defense. He has four Gold Gloves to his name, and certainly profiles as one of the more athletic options in the league at the position. It also just so happens that he pairs that athleticism with some of the softest hands in the business. Observe:

Imagine this process. Ground ball. Field. Throw. Scoop. Repeat. With hundreds of throws expected from all over the infield this summer, Hosmer’s ability to consistently and cleanly scoop poor throws out of the dirt is likely to pair well with the Padres’ grounder-laden foundation (especially as he contributes the occasional diving stab of his own on the right side).

Conclusion

Ultimately, there are simply too many coincidences to count this as anything other than a philosophical commitment to the ground game. From pitchers who refuse to let balls be put in the air to infielders who excel at turning ground balls into outs, the Padres’ emphasis on keeping batted balls on the dirt creates exciting opportunities for excess value in 2018.

In an era of homer-hunting and launch angles, the men tasked with keeping runs off the Petco Park scoreboard are so perfectly counter to these emerging offensive mantras that the performance of the team’s pitching staff as a whole has the potential to greatly improve. You zig, we zag.

These performance improvements, in turn, could create added opportunities for trades come mid-season, as A.J. Preller and Co. cash in on the undervalued assets they spent all winter looking to build a quality environment around.

After a failed swat at success in 2015, the Padres have spent the last two seasons building what fans in America’s Finest City hope will eventually be a championship ball club.

And as any good business owner knows, it’s always best to build from the ground up.

Prospects or not, in that regard, the Padres appear to be right on track.

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Noah Hilton
Noah is a current undergraduate at the University of San Diego. In addition to his classes as a Business Economics student, Noah serves as the scouting director for the nationally-ranked USD baseball team and as an NFL correspondent with The Mighty 1090. You can follow him on Twitter @thebackseatlamp

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