The San Diego Padres certainly understand the value of pitching as the team lost its two best starting pitchers just before the 2020 season ended.
Although the San Diego Padres’ season ended with a dispiriting 12-3 loss against the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team definitely “announced (its) presence with authority” in 2020. After years of losing, the Padres finished the regular season with the third-best record in Major League Baseball and ended a 14-year playoff drought.
Against their long-time nemesis, the St. Louis Cardinals, the Padres fought back from a 1-0 deficit in the Wild Card Series to win the next two games and move on to the National League Division Series against the Dodgers. In Game 3, nine pitchers combined to shut out the Cardinals—and make history. No team had accomplished that feat in the modern era of baseball beginning in 1900. No team had used eight or more pitchers in three postseason games
But the joy ride stopped there. Injuries and ineffectiveness involving their core pitchers doomed the Padres to a quick exit from the National League Division Series. Overworking relief pitchers cannot be successful over more than a few games. Knocking the ball around and out of the park alone does not win championships.
In a stroke of abysmal luck, injuries struck San Diego’s two top starting pitchers, Mike Clevinger and Dinelson Lamet. Clevinger, added at the trade deadline, cost the Padres six players. He had violated MLB’s Covid-19 restrictions, making him expendable in the eyes of his former team, the Cleveland Indians.
Lamet, whose career with the Padres had been interrupted by Tommy John surgery, returned in July 2019 and began to fulfill his promise. His 2.09 ERA, 0.855 WHIP, 205 ERA+, made the wait worthwhile. The fact that the Padres defeated the Cardinals is nothing short of a miracle considering the team’s co-aces’ absence.
Last year’s promising rookie pitcher, Chris Paddack, did not resemble 2019’s version to make matters worse. His ERA rose from 3.33 to 4.73, WHIP from 0.981 to 1.220, and ERA+ fell from 126 to 91. Despite the loss of Lamet and Clevinger, Paddack did not touch the ball in the three games against the Dodgers.
In Game 1 against L.A., Clevinger started but lasted just one inning in which he walked three batters. Then a parade of seven relievers maneuvered through the rest of the game. The Dodgers’ starter Walker Buehler gave up one run in four innings. Four relievers, including closer Kenley Jansen, followed in a 5-1 victory against the Padres.
The Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw pitched six innings in Game 2, giving up six hits and three runs. Zach Davies fought through L.A.’s lineup for five innings, the longest stretch of any Padres’ pitcher in the series. Four relievers followed and gave the offense a chance to mount a last-ditch effort in the 6-5 loss.
By the third game of the NLDS, the Padres’ relief corps had reached a limit. A total of 11 men toed the rubber as the Dodgers swept the series and ended the impressive season with a whimper.
In the 2019 World Series, the Washington Nationals 4-3 win over the Houston Astros demonstrated that good pitching does indeed stifle good hitting, especially in the playoffs. Both teams rode pitchers’ arms like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg for the Nationals and Justin Verlander and Zack Greinke for the Astros to make it to the World Series. Strasburg’s performance earned him the 2019 WS Most Valuable Player trophy. In 2017, the last-minute addition of Verlander helped cement Astros’ chances of winning the World Series (albeit with help from trash cans and other nefarious means).
This year the Tampa Bay Rays won 40 games, and their pitcher 3.56 ERA ranked second in the American League behind the first-place Cleveland Indians’ 3.29 ERA. Over the shortened season, 14 of Tampa Bay’s pitchers spent time on the injured list; five were lost for the season. However, the team’s pitching depth proved instrumental in propelling the team to the playoffs, toppling the New York Yankees, and winning Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Houston Astros 2-1.
The Padres’ fortunes next year depend in large part on the health of Lamet and Clevinger as well as Paddack’s return to his 2019 form. Davies, whose average fastball at 88.6 mph ranks fifth lowest in baseball, led the team in wins with a 7-4 record relying on his changeup 40 percent of the time. He provides a different look from his fire-balling compatriots.
Highly ranked pitcher MacKenzie Gore waits in the wings. Joey Lucchesi has obviously lost favor, but Adrian Morejon, Luis Patino, and Michael Baez showed promise, and one or more could possibly move to the rotation. After being relegated to the bullpen, Garrett Richards may decide to move on.
The Padres offense will need a bit of tweaking in the offseason, but the front office’s major task should be to shore up the pitching staff. A healthy and productive tandem of Lamet and Clevinger at the top of the rotation could set the tone, but San Diego will need more depth in starting pitching to top this 2020’s mostly magical ride.
*Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, Bull Durham