It’s as common as allergies on an early spring day, or Padres fans clamoring for anything resembling an interesting uniform.
The Padres were bad at hitting as a team in 2018, and have been for quite some time.
The 2004 season was the last time the Padres ranked any higher than 22nd in team batting average. 2004, the year before the Padres won the N.L. West for the first of two straight years. 2004 was also the first year of Petco Park, when Phil Nevin, Mark Loretta, and Brian Giles led the attack, boosting the Padres to a .273 team average, which was seventh in the league.
Only once in the 15 seasons of Petco Park have the Padres been better than 22nd out of 30 teams in team batting. The Padres have made the playoffs twice in the Petco Park era, but 2005 (25th) and 2006 (23rd) did not yield great hitting teams. It’s been all about the pitching since Petco opened.
Let’s take a look at some possible factors as to why this trend has continued.
Now, before you blame the offensive futility on Petco Park, understand that this trend outdates the Petco Park days. Here is a look at the numbers and rankings since 1990:
Really, the Padres have been consistently terrible at hitting as a team since 1998. Yes, the year the Padres won their second National League pennant and appeared in the World Series, they ranked just 26th in hitting. 1990 through 1997 were the peak years of a guy named Tony Gwynn, who surely buoyed the team’s offense. Gwynn was the main reason the Padres weren’t just as terrible in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s.
Petco Park, at first, certainly favored the pitchers. This year, Petco actually ranked 16th in home runs and 13th in runs per game. In 2016, it ranked 19th in home runs and 12th in runs per game. It was also in the top ten for home runs in 2015. The “Petco Park is unfair to hitters” narrative is tired and dead. It has become very fair lately. Plus, the road teams seem to hit against the Padres at Petco just fine.
Since it really has not had everything to do with Petco Park, why have the Padres been so bad at hitting for 20 years? Why can’t the Padres field at least an average hitting team? They had teams finishing last or near last even in the 1990’s, Qualcomm/Jack Murphy Field days. Additionally, the Padres play only half of their games at a supposedly unfavorable ballpark; what is their excuse for the other 81 games?
Numerous Hitting Coaches
Here is a list of hitting coaches the Padres have gone through since 1998:
That is 14 hitting coaches in 22 seasons, and seven since 2014. It’s hard to establish a culture of hitting well when the hitting coach is in flux every single season, sometimes more often than that. Stairs got the ax after just one year. It was much of the same for the Friars under Stairs, 28th in batting average, 27th in wRC+ and dead last in on-base percentage, which was said to be Stairs’ calling card. Washington now steps in without any Major League Baseball playing experience.
Lack of Depth in the Lineup
As mentioned, Tony Gwynn covered a lot of holes in the Padres’ lineup for many years. At points, Gwynn was the only source of offense the Padres could consistently count on. In 1988, Tony Gwynn batted .313 with a 128 OPS+. The next best hitter on the team was Marvell Wynne, who struck out twice as much as he walked and hit .264.
The Padres have been able to consistently get two players to hit well at once, but then there is a huge drop-off, providing little support or protection in the lineup. In 2010, the Padres went 90-72 and barely missed the playoffs, much due to their nasty pitching. Their hitting was third-to-last in the league and Adrian Gonzalez had to tow the whole load, hitting .298 with 31 home runs. The next best hitter was Will Venable, with a .245 average and 128 strikeouts.
In 2000, it was the Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin show as they combined to hit just under .300 with 57 home runs. Al Martin hit well, but was traded away mid-season, and Bret Boone, hitting .251, was the next best hitter.
This year it was especially true. Among Padres with at least 400 plate appearances, only Hunter Renfroe had a wRC+ over 100, while still hitting .248. The next highest was Eric Hosmer at a 95 wRC+ with a .253 average. The Padres have not exactly rolled out anything resembling Murderer’s Row.
Nothing good comes from striking out. It’s an epidemic spreading throughout the entire league, but the Padres were doing it long before it was cool. They finished in the top five in strikeouts in 2017 (3rd), 2016 (2nd), 2011 (2nd), 2008 (3rd), 2007 (3rd), 2001 (2nd), 2000 (4th), 1999 (4th), 1994 (3rd), 1993 (5th), and 1991 (2nd). That’s a lot of striking out.
Strikeouts kill rallies, deject hitters, and put pressure on the lineup. If your team is consistently in the top five for striking out, you are going to have a hard time sustaining success or getting any at all. Remember Ryan Ludwick? He was just two years removed from his 2008 season when he hit 37 homers with a .299 average. The Padres traded for him during the exciting 2010 season. He then struck out 57 times in 59 games for the Padres, hitting just .211. Examples like Ludwick are littered all over the past 20 years of Padres baseball.
This season, the Padres had the second-highest strikeout rate in all the league at 25.1%.
Inability to Keep Star Hitters
The list of Anthony Rizzos might be longer than the list of Ludwicks. I am talking about young, developing players with a ton of potential being shipped off by the Padres brass before realizing that huge upside. Rizzo played in 49 games for the Padres in 2011, batting .141 with just one homer. The Padres thought Andrew Cashner was more valuable and shipped Rizzo off to Chicago, where he has now four consecutive 30-homer seasons while batting .271.
David Freese was drafted by the Padres in 2006 but never saw the field as a Friar. Instead, he went on to become the 2011 World Series MVP with the Cardinals with an All-Star selection and .273 lifetime average.
Yasmani Grandal might be the most recent example. He was a young catcher still finding his way, hitting 15 home runs and .225 in 2014 for the Friars when they shipped him up north to the Dodgers. Since then, Grandal hit 89 home runs in four years in L.A., including 27 in 2016.
Justin Upton only stayed on the Padres for one season, but certainly made an impact. He hit .251 with 26 home runs and a 119 OPS+. Since leaving San Diego, he has been even better, batting .259 and averaging 33 home runs in the two seasons since his departure.
Hopefully, Eric Hosmer does not appear on this list. He may not be shipped out anytime soon but file him under “disappointing” so far.
These all may be just symptoms of a bigger problem. Do players not enjoy playing for the Padres? Is the front office turning players off to staying here long-term or performing at their best? It can’t be the atmosphere, as Petco Park is one of the best ballparks in baseball and the weather is unmatched. There is something amiss here. How can a team be this bad at hitting for so long? This is starting to reach Cleveland-Browns-trying-to-find-a-quarterback level. It’s been just about the same amount of time since the Padres have had an above-average offense. It has been since 1994-1995 that the Padres have strung together two straight seasons of ranking in the top half of the league.
Have the Padres had good players in these years? Of course. It would be an insult to say otherwise. The problems have been sustaining any success they have, and depth in the lineup. The Padres need to find the root cause of this. I am not sure any other team has been this futile at hitting for so long. Sometimes teams even get lucky one or two years, but the Padres haven’t even gotten that. There may be change on the way with young, controllable talent coming in the next few years. However, it’s all lip service until there are measurable results on the field.
This problem is bigger than Petco Park, Andy Green, or the marine layer in San Diego harbor. How does this get fixed? Blow up the entire organization from the grounds crew up to the president? Seems a bit extreme. Hold on to hitters and coaches who seem to be trending in the right direction? That would be more plausible. If I had the right answer, I would be down at 100 Park Blvd. in San Diego, and not typing this in my living room while eating grilled cheese.
At any rate, if the Padres have visions of grandeur in the coming years with all this young talent, something needs to change at the plate that hasn’t been done since Tony Gwynn dug into the left-handed batter’s box every day.