Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/9/14
It is a fact undeniable that people don’t often talk about the San Diego Padres. The reasons for this, presumably, are numerous. The Padres haven’t been good for a while. They have a relatively small fan base, and a limited payroll, and they’re overshadowed by bigger deals up north. They play out West, for whatever that might matter. They don’t have any stop-what-you’re-doing superstars, and the good players are frequently talked about in trade rumors. It’s just hard to talk about 30 different teams evenly, and if you’re in the business of ratings or traffic, the Padres aren’t a big draw. But the Padres as a team perform independent of the buzz. And on Sunday, in San Diego, they knocked off the Diamondbacks 4-1. That capped off a series sweep, that followed another series sweep. This might have escaped your attention, but the Padres are now a game over .500, at 35-34. They’re right in the thick of things in the National League West, and if you forgive the arbitrary cutoff, since April 24 the Padres are tied for the second-best record in baseball. They started 5-15, slipping off whatever radars they might’ve been on in the first place. They’ve made it all the way back, quietly, and they’ve done so because of their position players. Almost entirely. What we don’t have, here, is game-by-game WAR totals. But here’s something I can do. Since the start of May, the Padres have gone 25-18. That’s a quality record, good for a 94-win pace if you prefer things that way. And here’s the breakdown of how that’s happened: Batters: 7.9 WAR Pitchers: 0.1 WAR Something the Padres have been doing is hitting, and another thing the Padres have been doing is fielding. For kicks, they’ve also been running the bases, and by all of this I mean they’ve been doing these things well. They have not been pitching particularly well, but that hasn’t slowed them down. Maybe more accurately, it has been slowing them down, but it hasn’t prevented them from catching fire and rising in the standings. Now that the Padres are where they are, it’s incredible to look at their overall numbers. They’ve achieved, through 69 games, a .507 winning percentage. Here’s the same breakdown of how that’s happened: Batters: 12.0 WAR Pitchers: -1.7 WAR Ranks: Batters: Second-best in National League Pitchers: Worst in baseball A year ago, it looked like Chase Headley had broken out to establish himself as one of the game’s premier third basemen. It made him the subject of trade rumors, and it also made him the subject of contract-extension negotiations with San Diego. This year, Headley hasn’t at all been the same player, but the Padres have coasted by anyway, thanks in large part to Everth Cabrera playing like an All-Star shortstop. Jedd Gyorko, also, has been outstanding as a rookie. Chris Denorfia‘s been valuable, and Kyle Blanks is trying to make something of himself again. The Padres are over .500, and by our metrics, the pitching staff has collectively been below replacement-level. Maybe that isn’t a complete shock — the second part — given the regular starting rotation: Edinson Volquez Jason Marquis Clayton Richard Eric Stults Andrew Cashner Cashner, of course, is of considerable interest, but his strikeouts haven’t matched his stuff, and his velocity is down. Stults has actually been the star, and you should take a moment to ask yourself what you know about Eric Stults. He’s 33 years old. He had all of 145 major-league innings before turning 30, and over those innings he allowed 83 runs. The Padres grabbed him off waivers from the White Sox last May. He wasn’t supposed to be much, and he’s been the Padres’ ace. I grabbed all individual team seasons going back to 1900, yielding a sample of 2,370. I calculated team pitching staff WAR per 162 games, and the worst ever posted is -2.4, by the 1964 Athletics. The 1998 Marlins show up at -2.1. Then, at -1.0, we find the 1940 Bees and the 1928 Braves. The 2013 Padres are on pace for a final WAR/162 of -4.0, which would be, by this measure, the worst mark in history. Let’s say that again: by WAR, the Padres are on pace to have the worst pitching staff in baseball history. And they’re over .500, after 69 games. Below, the worst pitching staffs for teams that won at least half of their games: Season Team W L Win% WAR/162 1911 Cardinals 75 74 0.503 1.8 1991 Athletics 84 78 0.519 3.6 1969 Senators 86 76 0.531 4.0 1969 Athletics 88 74 0.543 4.3 1938 Bees 77 75 0.507 4.7 1982 Padres 81 81 0.500 4.8 1967 Angels 84 77 0.522 5.1 1966 Tigers 88 74 0.543 5.2 1933 Braves 83 71 0.539 5.4 1970 Angels 86 76 0.531 5.5 Only 11 teams have ever finished with a WAR/162 below zero. The best of those teams was the 1940 Bees, who finished 65-87. The Padres have done things in a way we might consider historically unique. But we have to look at how the Padres project from this point forward, because it means only so much to discuss what’s already happened. To say that a team is “on pace for” something is to ignore the principle of regression, and regression is a huge factor when discussing something statistically extreme. Let’s check out the FanGraphs projected standings. Sure enough, we find the Padres just barely projected to finish above .500. Overall, they’ve more or less been performing at their true talent. So that idea remains intact. And then we can look at a projected performance breakdown, based on the team depth charts. Padres pitchers are projected to be above replacement-level the rest of the way. But only barely, and the pitching staff’s projected WAR is second-lowest in baseball, ahead of only the Astros. Of the Padres’ total projected WAR, pitchers account for 20% of it. This is baseball’s lowest rate, with the Astros at 28% and the Indians at 29%. The Padres, to date, have been lopsided, and the Padres, henceforth, project to remain lopsided, if slightly less so. Let’s say the projections all come true. The Padres, then, would finish with 81 or 82 wins, and the pitchers would collectively have a 1.5 season WAR. That would be the worst ever for a .500+ team, and it’d be the worst for any team since the 2003 Padres, unless this year’s Astros were to continue to suck. I’ve included here a lot of details. Here’s the general message: these Padres are weird. These Padres can’t pitch, but they can still win. We can’t actually know what’s going to happen, so we’ll have to re-visit this after the year. We don’t know, most generally, how the Padres are going to finish in terms of wins and losses. We don’t know if Cory Luebke is going to get back on a mound, as his rehab from Tommy John surgery is stalled. We don’t know when we’ll see Joe Wieland, and we don’t know who the Padres might call up, and we don’t know for whom the Padres might trade if they stay in the race and target an arm. There’s some starter depth in the organization, but it’s limited. Robbie Erlin has promise. Burch Smith is doing well in Tucson, and that’s also where one will find Anthony Bass. While Tim Stauffer‘s in the bullpen, he could conceivably get stretched out. It’s not odd that people still aren’t really talking about the Padres. It’s somewhat odd that the Padres have rallied to reach a pretty good record. It’s extraordinarily odd how the Padres have gotten to this point, and this team could end up one of the weirder teams in history. Perhaps Chris Denorfia captures the essence of the Padres in a nutshell. He does pretty well for himself at the plate. He’s more than capable in the field. He’s quick on the basepaths. He doesn’t do crap on the mound.
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