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Padres Get Better End Of Baker-LeBlanc Swap

The Marlins and Padres managed to sneak in a little one-for-one trade just before the Thanksgiving holiday, with catcher John Baker heading to San Diego in exchange for left-handed pitcher Wade LeBlanc.

As you know, the Padres were simply horrendous on offense in 2011. Among the 30 clubs, they ranked 29th in AVG (.237), 28th in OBP (.305), 29th in SLG (.349), 30th in ISO (.112), 29th in wOBA (.292), 26th in wRC+ (89), and 25th in batting runs (-58.2). On the bright side, they did lead all teams with 170 stolen bases (79.4% success rate), so that helped a little. Long story short, one player isn’t going to save this offense, but adding Baker is a step in the right direction.

The 30-year-old backstop missed most of the 2010 and 2011 seasons after having Tommy John surgery, posting a measly .260 wOBA in 104 plate appearances. Baker was a pretty good hitter in the two prior years though, putting up a .344 wOBA and 106 wRC+ in 656 plate appearances from 2008-2009. His value stemmed mostly from his 10.8% walk rate, though he did manage to deposit 14 balls over the fence (.142 ISO). A 10.2% walk rate in over 2,500 minor league plate appearances tells us it isn’t a fluke; Baker can work the count and is willing to take ball four.

Left-handed batters typically get eaten alive by Petco Park, which has a 59 HR Park Factor and a 90 wOBA Park Factor for lefties according to StatCorner. Baker’s not a grip-it and rip-it guy trying to yank everything down the line though, his stroke is geared more towards the opposite field. Here’s his 2008-2009 spray chart, courtesy of Texas Leaguers….

Almost all of his over-the-fence power is to right, but most of the non-ground ball balls in play head out to left and center. During those 2008-2009 seasons, only two backstops managed to best a .400 wOBA on balls hit to the opposite field: Baker (.549) and Joe Mauer (.526). Petco Park — which is 367 feet to straight-away right and 387 to straight-away left — still suppresses offense from right-handed batters, but not nearly as much as it does against lefties (95 HR and 92 wOBA Park Factors). Baker more resembles a pull righty hitter than he does a pull lefty hitter.

Nick Hundley, the Padres’ incumbent backstop, has had some injury trouble over the last three seasons, including a fractured wrist (suffered on a hit-by-pitch), an oblique strain, and elbow surgery (loose bodies). When healthy though, he hits southpaws pretty hard, a .347 wOBA over the last two seasons (.332 vs. RHP). Baker is close to useless against lefties (career .277 wOBA), but he does a good amount of damage against righties (.343 wOBA). The Padres at least now have the makings of a pretty decent catching platoon, one that may help keep Hundley healthier (as well as Baker since he’s coming off the elbow surgery) while avoiding the Luis Martinezes of the world.

As for the 27-year-old LeBlanc, he’s basically the most Padres pitcher ever. He’s spent parts of the past four seasons with San Diego, throwing 293.1 IP across 52 starts and two relief appearances. With two fastballs in the mid-80’s (four-seamer and cutter) and a dead-fish changeup to go with his sparsely used low-70’s curveball, LeBlanc allows an extreme amount of fly balls (just 34.7% grounders) and struggles to miss bats (6.29 K/9 and 15.0 K%). He’s good but not great at limiting walks (3.15 BB/9 and 8.3 BB% last two seasons), and he doesn’t have the big platoon split that would make you think he’d be a serviceable lefty specialist out of the bullpen. His Triple-A performance (8.2 K/9 and 2.8 BB/9 with a ~3.75 FIP) is better than the ERA (4.62) would suggest (376.1 IP), but I think this is one of the few cases where we can look at a guy’s home/road split and get the entire story: 2.97 ERA and a 4.13 FIP at Petco Park (148.2 IP), but a 6.16 ERA and a 5.59 FIP on the road (144.2 IP).

Again, Baker alone won’t revive San Diego’s dormant offense, but he will help. He draws walks, hits right-handers, and has a knack for hitting the ball towards the “small” part of his new home park. Yeah, he’s only thrown out 19% of attempted base stealers in the bigs, but his minor league track record is a bit better (26%). Perhaps the elbow hurt his performance a bit. Baker could add a win to the Padres’ ledger in 2012, maybe even a bit more, and they have him under control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2014. All it cost them was a pitcher that’s as close to replacement level as it gets.