Bud Black would have enjoyed pitching in Petco Park. Alas, the lefty didn’t get the opportunity: his playing career ended a decade before the Padres’ home ballpark opened. But as San Diego’s skipper, Black does relish the opportunity to manage there. Still, that doesn’t mean his job is easy. The 54-year-old isn’t just nurturing a young pitching staff, he’s helping an equally inexperienced lineup navigate one of the game’s most-challenging hitting environments.
Black discussed Petco’s park factors, and several of his players — including the recently departed Heath Bell and Mat Latos — during last month’s Winter Meetings.
David Laurila: How much does Petco Park impact a pitching staff?
Bud Black: Besides the hard numbers, it really gives confidence to a pitcher, and not just our own pitchers. Like with a lot of parks in the game, there are certain pitches to be thrown that will make it extremely difficult to hit the ball out of the park. Percentage-wise, if the ball is hit to a certain part of the ballpark, the pitcher isn‘t going to get hurt as much.
In our place, that’s to right field and to right-center, as well as to left-center. To straightaway left field is very doable for a home run — but the majority of our park, as you move from the right field corner to left center — is big. Pitch selection is important in Petco.
DL: Should you pitch more to contact in Petco than in other ballparks?
BB: I think that you can, but there are a couple of ways to look at that. You don’t want to lay the ball in there. But I do think that it can help you mentally — knowing that if you throw the ball to certain spots — you can feel good about it. When you’re behind in the count, you can throw to certain spots, as well.
More than anything, if you’re a strike-thrower… that helps you at Petco. If you’re an extreme fly ball pitcher, that helps you at Petco. When the ball gets hit into the air, it hangs up and maybe doesn’t travel as well because of the coastal situation we have — the heaviness of the air. It’s not unlike San Francisco or Dodger Stadium.
Some pitchers might be hurt because they’re fly ball pitchers. That doesn’t apply to us as much because we play 81 games in our park, plus nine more in both San Francisco and Los Angeles.
DL: Do you want fly ball pitchers on your staff, as opposed to guys who tend to keep the ball on the ground?
BB: Not necessarily. It’s whatever a pitcher has results with. It’s simply that a fly ball pitcher isn’t effected as much in Petco as he would be in a place like Cincinnati, Philadelphia or Toronto.
DL: Heath Bell’s strikeout rate went down last year. Why?
BB: It was a combination of a couple of things. His strikeout rate probably fell a little bit because — for whatever reason — he was behind in the count more often than in previous years. I would guess, without doing any hard studies, that his first-pitch ratio wasn’t as good. He wasn’t throwing a first-pitch strike as often as in years past. When you’re behind 1-0, 2-0, you’re not going to strike as many guys out. Guys are going to get into more-favorable hitting counts and put the ball into play.
DL: Is having a deep bullpen more important now than ever before?
BB: There’s no doubt about it. The entire 12-man staff is much more important over the course of the season than at any time in the history of the game. Starting pitchers are throwing fewer innings, which means that the bullpen is throwing more. It just makes sense that the depth of your pen has to cover those innings. They’re getting you anywhere from 12 to three outs.
We’re caught up a lot in pitch counts. We’re caught up a lot in protecting arms, especially young arms. The use of the bullpen has become much more prevalent, so the depth in your bullpen has become much more important — the quality of the guys you have out there. You need guys who can put up zeros. There’s no doubt that bullpen depth — and bullpen specialization — is extremely important.
DL: Is bullpen depth as important as back-of-the rotation depth?
BB: To be a good team, and to be a championship team, you need both. You have to be able to close out a game, but you need to put yourself in a position to do that. Basically, you can’t slip up anywhere on the pitching side. You need the quality starters over the long haul to give you a chance to win each and every night.
DL: Which of your starters made the biggest strides last year?
BB: I’m going to say two. I thought Cory Luebke and Tim Stauffer made great strides for us. Stauffer — coming off of shoulder surgery and a year when he was mostly in the bullpen — had a very solid year. He showed that he can make starts. Even though he missed a couple at the end, he showed some durability and threw the ball very well.
Luebke made our team out of spring training as a reliever — transitioning into the bullpen — to becoming what we feel is a potential top-of-the-rotation starter going forward.
DL: What about Mat Latos?
BB: Mat’s season was a little variable. He got of to a bit of a slow start — based on some injuries in spring training — and didn’t get out of the chute all that great. He showed some flashes early, but his best ball was July onward. He really threw the ball like he did in 2010. I thought his stuff got better midway through the course of the season. His velocity picked up, his aggressiveness improved, his mindset became where it needed to be. He’s a young pitcher with some upside and a lot more to learn. Each time he goes out there, he’s learning.
DL: How does Casey Kelly profile?
BB: He’s getting closer. He’s a guy who has a good-moving fastball and a feel for a breaking ball and a changeup. He’s going to pitch in the big leagues and it could be as early as this season; we’ll see how his performance is in the minor leagues. He’s young, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s a good competitor. He’s athletic, his arm works well, and we think he’s going to be durable.
He throws his fastball in the low-to-mid-90s, with movement. With Casey, it’s a matter of him being able to control the movement — throwing the ball to spots with his movement — and changing speeds. He’s a guy who, no doubt, will fit into anybody’s rotation.
We’re looking forward to the day when he gets there, when Joe Wieland gets there, when Robbie Erlin gets there. Anthony Bass. We have a slew of young pitchers. Stauffer is in his 20s, as are Latos, Clayton Richard and Luebke. It’s a good group.
DL: When I talked to Chase Headley last summer, he said that he adjusted his game to conform to Petco. Is that something you expect your players to do?
BB: We have to get players who have the mindset to play in our park and not be beaten down by what that park can do to you. Their sole emphasis is on winning a baseball game. The purpose of this game is to win championships and we need players whose sole intention is to win that game, that night. That mindset will carry you through a major league season.
Chase did a good job with that. As a player, you’re going through a lot of different things, trying to become a major-league player. You want to get there and survive. You want to perform. There are a lot of things that go through a young player’s mind — both on the physical and the mental side — that they have to overcome. Chase is to that point.
DL: Does Anthony Rizzo need to make similar adjustments?
BB: Players are always making adjustments. I think that Anthony needs to make some subtle changes to his swing and his approach. He knows that, which is a good thing. That’s the first step. He’s a bright kid who learned a lot in 129 at bats. He figured out that some things in the minor leagues are different in the big leagues. There are some things he has to change, and I’m sure he will.
DL: You pitched in the big leagues for 15 seasons. Is there anything you’d have done differently had you pitched in Petco?
BB: I was pretty fortunate in that most of my career was spent in Kansas City and San Francisco, which were good places to pitch. The old ballpark in Cleveland was also a good place. But more than anything, if you can learn to throw the ball down and away, which is no secret, you can pitch anywhere. That and become a strike-thrower. Those are the things I tell our guys. A walk is not a good thing. Where you get hurt in Petco is when you don’t make a hitter earn it.
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