Q&A: Bud Black: Pitching at Petco

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.

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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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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-March 2011 and is a regular contributor to several publications. His first book, Interviews from Red Sox Nation, was published by Maple Street Press in 2006. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.


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jcxy
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jcxy
4 years 6 months ago

what an apropos conversation given the focus of the articles and comments the last few days!

great job as usual!

Dave S
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Dave S
4 years 6 months ago

Heath Bell’s first pitch ball % has actual decreased the last two seasons.

1-0 count:
2009= 42.09%
2010= 41.11%
2011= 39.45%

Admittedly small samples. But “getting behind the batter” early in the count certainly isn’t the reason his strikeout percentage dropped.

Jake F
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Jake F
4 years 6 months ago

What a bunch of bs. I’m so tired of hearing the same thing over and over again. Either San Diego fans are stupid, or they think we are. Having your pitchers pitch in a pitchers park is no advantage when the other team get’s to pitch there, as well! What happens when we have to face those same pitchers in a hitters park, when we are playing small ball? The answer has been painfully obvious. Signing pitchers to one year contracts so they can “resurrect” their careers is ridiculous. I love the core group of minor leaguers we have in place, but Alonzo, Rizzo, and the like will never find success here unless management brings in the fences and gives them a fighting chance. If we have a quality rotation, our group of pitchers will hold the opposition either way.

Slacker George
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Slacker George
4 years 6 months ago

I think the advantage is having 81 games in Petco, rather than the 6 to 9 an opposing team has there. The more repetitions a pitcher can get, the better chance they can modify behavior. What you can’t do is go overboard and build a team entirely based on your home park, as you’ll get eaten up in road games. Black addressed that in this response:

“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.”

James
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James
4 years 6 months ago

I would add that I think it should be a good place to groom young pitchers, where they can work on doing things that will play successfully anywhere (hitting spots, low and away, etc.) without the shellshock of giving up a ton of bombs.

They should be able to make the home park an advantage via roster construction and the like – we’ll see if they ever get around to doing it. Maybin and Alonso could be a good start.

Jordan
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Jordan
4 years 6 months ago

There are a handful of MLB stadiums, Petco and Coors among them, in which park factors are significant enough to where a smart GM would build his team around them. Ground ball pitchers are going to have more success in Coors, and fly ballers will get away with more in Petco. So those types of pitchers are worth more to those teams than they are to the market in general. Use the same sort of logic for hitters (fly ball hitters in Coors, speed and defense in Petco) and you have yourself a recipe for real home field advantage.

As far as the idea that building your team in this way will hurt you on the road, that’s mostly untrue. The Padres don’t have to overpay for a fly ball pitcher just because that pitcher will be better in Petco – they can still sign him for market value. So while, for instance, fly ball pitchers will be less likely to outperform their true talent on the road than in Petco, the Padres are still only paying for the market value of the pitcher’s true talent. If you build a team around Petco’s park factors, you’ll get more than you paid for in home games, and just about exactly what you paid for on the road.

George suggests that building a team this way will get you eaten up on the road, but that’s unlikely to be true. It’s not as though the Padres play 81 games in Petco and 81 in Coors; their combined road park factors are likely to be close to neutral, perhaps skewed slightly towards hitters by the fact that they don’t get Petco as a road park.

Also, even if you get marginally less than what you paid for on the road, that can be made up for by the money you save by building a team around your park. Let’s say (these numbers are purely hypothetical) that the Padres want to build an 85 win team. If they build around Petco, they can pay for 82 wins and get an extra 3 out of players who overperform at Petco. Even if you think their players would underperform by, say, 1 win, they can make up for that win by using the 15mm they saved by building around Petco to sign a FA.

Marver
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Marver
4 years 6 months ago

You lost me at ’15 mm saved…to sign a FA’. I promise you that it nowhere on Moorad’s radar.

And whatever advantage Petco could theoretically have, it is considerably mitigated by the fact that the ballpark produces the most boring baseball imaginable, which dampens attendance. I know that I, for one, have considerably less interest in watching Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly pitch a 3-2 duel than I do watching Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly pitch a 6-4 game with a ball or two leaving the yard.

I also think the theory behind Petco serving as an advantage is extremely flawed. For one, pitchers whose skillsets translate better in other ballparks lose value when coming to Petco — these pitchers, then, are never bargains to the Padres even if they are theoretically the best bargain on the open market. Additionally, there isn’t an infinite spectrum of pitchers on the open market in which you can choose the best suited for Petco. In reality, there’s about 5-15 arms on the market that the Padres front office would ever consider, and the odds of finding a bargain amongst those that also happens to have the tendencies that play well at Petco isn’t as large as you’re leading us to believe.

In other words, we’re left with boring baseball and no advantage.

Jordan
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Jordan
4 years 6 months ago

The 15mm was a hypothetical, based on the 3 wins they’d get but not have to pay for. I wasn’t saying the Padres specifically were going to spend that much this year. I was illustrating a point about roster construction in general for teams whose home parks differ substantially from the norm.

As far as exciting baseball, that’s a personal preference thing. I’m not aware of any studies showing that the overwhelming majority of fans prefer high scoring games. I personally prefer to watch a pitching duel, because it amplifies the potential impact of each PA.

I agree there is a limited supply of FA pitchers each year, and there may well be years in which a team like the Padres or Rockies would do well to avoid all the FA arms. But there will be years when 1 or more FA’s fit their park. And we’re not just talking about pitchers, and we’re not just talking about FA’s. There are hitter profiles that are more suited to some parks than others, and roster construction also involves the draft and trades.

I don’t know how much of an advantage a team like the Padres could gain by constructing its roster in this way – it would be an interesting topic for, say, a Fangraphs article, hint hint – but even if it’s as small as 3 ‘free’ wins, it’s well worth doing.

Jake F
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Jake F
4 years 6 months ago

It doesn’t matter which team, or how many times we will be playing them in Petco. They have the same advantage as any other Padre pitcher when they step on the mound. The “repetitions” of relying on a park that will save a putchers mistakes will only hurt when they putch in a park with normal dimensions. Black was simply given bread and butter answers. What’s he going to say, that he loves the parks dimensions? No-as a matter of fact, no player or coach has ever uttered those words. The fact of the matter is we will never be able to attract a star offensive player in this park, so be satisfied with 3-2 games a Petco, and 4-1 games on the road. If we had a normal left field/left center, the idea of forcing Alonzo and Rizzo into the same lineup and letting them rip for a year (rather than knowing they’re going to get swallowed up by a carnivorous park) would be exciting. As it is, we’ve relegated ourselves to the fact that there is no room in the lineup for two 15-20 homer guys in this park.

Drew
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Drew
4 years 6 months ago

You’re the Padres. When’s the last time you ever attracted a star free agent offensive player? Greg Vaughn in 1996? After he had already played the end of the previous season with them? Or Mike Piazza in his age 37 season after he hit .251/.326/.452 the previous season?

bmasar
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bmasar
4 years 6 months ago

I think you are missing something, Jake. Petco factors may affect the two pitchers equally in the same game, but also maybe not, depending on pitcher tendencies. However, playing 81 games at Petco allows the Padres to construct a roster that potentially maximizes the Petco factors (fly ball pitchers, control pitchers, etc.) over the long haul. The idea being that the home team tries to create a slight advantage that will magnify over 81 games.

Bryan
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Bryan
4 years 6 months ago

I don’t know if I agree with the notion that any type of pitcher, let alone a flyball type, is more valuable to the Padres simply because Petco is a pitcher’s heaven. Guys like Randy Wolf, Dustin Moseley, Jon Garland, Kevin Correia, Adam Eaton, Chad Gaudin, and David Wells have all outperformed their xFIP while pitching for San Diego. If I’m San Diego’s GM, I can live with a mediocre rotation if it means being able to spend a little more on offense; particularly if you can get a guy like Adrian Gonzalez, who was obviously limited by the ballpark, but still such a good hitter that he performed well in it anyway (career .346 wOBA at Petco). Drew touched on that problem though, as the Padres are always going to struggle to attract free agent hitters.

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