The Padres Offense: Historically Bad, Unlucky, Or Both?

For the first time in seemingly forever, a new GM hire was announced on Wednesday, with A.J. Preller tabbed to take the reins of the San Diego Padres. For such a change to occur, things typically need to go seriously wrong, and in the Padres’ case, it was offensive issues of epic proportion that did the trick. Ranking last in the NL in runs, AVG, OBP, SLG, doubles and total bases, to name just a few categories, is no way to go through life. How did the Padre offense get that bad, and is there a layer of bad fortune working against them to go along with the cold hard facts?

Some things about the Padres stood out as I looked at some average speed off of the bat data for players with 100 balls in play or more. Such data can be a little bit misleading, as it tends to overrate fly ball hitters over ground ball hitters (the typical fly ball is hit harder than the typical grounder), and league-leading average speeds tend to approximate the velocity off of the bat of a can-of-corn fly ball, which is definitely not a good thing. Still, it’s a worthwhile indicator that can open windows of investigation that ultimately lead to meaningful conclusions.

Of the 30 major league clubs, the Padres are the only one without a single qualifying hitter with an average speed off of the bat of 80 MPH or higher. 43 of 161 qualifying NL hitters did so, but none of them were Padres. Seth Smith was their club leader, as you might expect, and he is simply an adequate offensive player having a career year. Next were Yasmani Grandal and Tommy Medica – the former is a strikeout machine who needs to have materially better than average contact quality just to keep his head above water, and the latter – who also whiffs a lot – is merely a part-timer at a position where the offensive bar is very high. On the other pole, there is Everth Cabrera and his extremely soft, barely off-of-the-ground contact, and not far above him is the similarly weak contact of Alexi Amarista, Cameron Maybin and the disappointing Will Venable. There is basically no way that a club with so many paddle-ball candidates in one lineup can have anything but a feeble offense. One can carry a Cabrera at shortstop if the rest of the offense is passable, but with two OF slots also devoid of anything resembling consistently hard contact, you’re in trouble. This offense is bad on merit.

We haven’t yet talked about two of the main culprits contributing to the Padres’ offensive void this season – first baseman Yonder Alonso and second baseman Jedd Gyorko. Interestingly enough, both players’ average speed off of the bat is almost exactly league average this season, but their results have been way below that – in fact, they’ve been abysmal. Have these two players simply been unlucky this season, and been caught up in the wave that has dragged the Padres down, or are they significant parts of the problem in their own right?

After being drafted by the Reds in the 1st round of the 2008 draft, Alonso had been somewhat of a disappointment working his way through their system, never truly dominating, and never being one of his level’s younger players. A BABIP-infused hot streak in the big leagues at the end of the 2011 season raised his stock, however, and he was sent to the Padres along with Grandal and RHPs Edinson Volquez and Brad Boxberger to the Padres for a young, inexpensive, MLB-entrenched Mat Latos. Alonso was generally considered the leading light on the Padre side of the deal. Now in his third year in San Diego, Alonso is still looking for his first .400+ SLG season.

The Padres popped Gyorko on the 2nd round of the 2010 draft, and he destroyed minor league pitching to the tune of a .320-.386-.529 line, earning the everyday second base job in the spring of 2013. He showed impressive power for a middle infielder in his rookie season, drilling 23 homers and earning himself a handsome five-year contract extension.

Alonso is 27 years old, Gyorko, 25 – both right in the wheelhouse where MLB regulars generally make positive strides in offensive performance. It hasn’t quite worked out that way for these two. To try to determine why, let’s examine their 2013-14 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data. First, the frequency data:

FREQ – 2013
Alonso % REL PCT
K 12.5% 63 13
BB 8.5% 108 63
POP 6.3% 80 33
FLY 27.9% 98 44
LD 22.3% 105 59
GB 43.6% 102 64
—————- ———- ———- ———-
FREQ – 2013
Gyorko % REL PCT
K 23.4% 118 81
BB 6.3% 80 27
POP 8.2% 105 55
FLY 35.1% 124 93
LD 23.2% 109 69
GB 33.4% 78 4

FREQ – 2014
Alonso % REL PCT
K 12.6% 62 13
BB 5.2% 67 14
POP 8.4% 109 62
FLY 28.5% 102 55
LD 21.0% 101 52
GB 42.1% 96 43
—————- ———- ———- ———-
FREQ – 2014
Gyorko % REL PCT
K 24.5% 121 84
BB 5.9% 76 24
POP 6.7% 88 40
FLY 33.7% 121 91
LD 17.2% 83 6
GB 42.3% 97 48

Two totally different types of hitters here. Solely looking at the frequency data gets one excited about Alonso. A first baseman with a consistently low strikeout rate – a 13 percentile rank in both 2013 and 2014 – sign me up. After two straight seasons with an above average BB rate, it has plunged significantly this season, to a 14 percentile rank. As we will see in the production table below, pitchers have learned that Alonso lacks the ability to consistently punish them, and now challenge him more frequently. Alonso has a fairly neutral fly ball/ground ball ratio, and actually has had an above average line drive rate in each of his three seasons as a regular – in fact, his 2014 liner percentile rank of 52 is a career low.

Gyorko has posted well worse than league average K (81 and 84 percentile ranks in 2013 and 2014) and BB (27 and 24) rates in both of his MLB seasons, and has established himself as an extreme fly ball hitter (93 and 91 percentile ranks). Line drive rates often fluctuate very significantly from year to year, and this has clearly been the case with Gyorko, whose liner percentile rank has plunged from 69 in 2013 to 6 in 2014. In 2013, Gyorko was one of a very small number of MLB regulars who hit more fly balls (excluding popups) than grounders, and was virtually the only young player in that group. His extreme 2013 fly ball rate was a harbinger of his 2014 struggles.

Now that we’ve created a picture of who these guys are stylistically, let’s take a look at their production by BIP type for 2013-14, both before and after adjustment for context:

PROD – 2013
FLY 0.225 0.513 53 45
LD 0.641 0.703 82 92
GB 0.264 0.280 122 124
ALL BIP 0.320 0.418 83 83
ALL PA 0.276 0.338 0.361 100 100
—————- ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–
PROD – 2013
FLY 0.331 0.976 158 107
LD 0.622 0.732 82 108
GB 0.237 0.288 110 98
ALL BIP 0.331 0.592 120 112
ALL PA 0.247 0.295 0.442 101 95

PROD – 2014
FLY 0.246 0.623 75 76
LD 0.600 0.889 91 94
GB 0.167 0.178 47 75
ALL BIP 0.265 0.437 72 82
ALL PA 0.229 0.270 0.378 82 93
—————- ———– ———– ———– ———– ———–
PROD – 2014
FLY 0.200 0.636 66 97
LD 0.643 0.857 95 102
GB 0.159 0.159 41 105
ALL BIP 0.246 0.425 65 97
ALL PA 0.179 0.230 0.310 57 81

Both players’ actual production on each BIP type is indicated in the AVG and SLG columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD column. That figure then is adjusted for context, such as home park, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD column. For the purposes of this exercise, SH and SF are included as outs and HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation.

The most eyecatching – in a negative way – component of Alonso’s profile is his utter lack of fly ball production, both before and after adjustment for context. The closest matches for his 2013 ADJ PRD of 45 on fly balls were Mark Ellis, David Lough and Skip Schumaker – we’re talking somewhat different skill sets with those guys. The bar is obviously a lot higher for a hulking, relatively unathletic first sacker, well beyond his somewhat improved 2014 fly ball ADJ PRD figure of 76. Also notable is the massive drop in Alonso’s ground ball production this season. He’s batting .167 AVG-.178 SLG on grounders, and adjustment for context only pushes his ADJ PRD upward to 75. Alonso’s ADJ PRD on all BIP is basically identical in 2013 (83) and 2014 (84). His solid K/BB rates pushed his overall ADJ PRD to an MLB average 100 in 2013, but his lesser BB rate limits him to a 93 mark thus far in 2014. These might be in the league average range for all hitters, but it’s way below what you’re looking for at his position.

Gyorko put up big numbers on fly balls in 2013, with a .331 AVG-.976 SLG, good for 158 REL PRD, before adjustment for context. Based on my own park factors which are based on granular batted ball data, Petco Park played like a hitters’ park in 2013 after the fences were moved in significantly – a trend that has not been repeated thus far this season. How can that be? Well, just over 35% of homers hit in 2013 were hit at 100 MPH or harder. Exactly one of Gyorko’s was. He hit five homers to CF in 2013 – all of them at Petco. After adjustment for context, Gyorko’s 2013 ADJ PRD on fly balls drops to 107, not all that much higher than his 2014 mark of 97, after an upward contextual adjustment, as Petco is once again playing like a pitcher’s park. Gyorko’s liner and grounder ADJ PRD figures are in the average range for both 2013 and 2014, but his 2013 ADJ PRD on all BIP (112) is much higher than his 2014 figure (97), in large part due to the plunge in his liner rate this season. Gyorko’s below average K and BB rates force his overall ADJ PRD further downward, to 95 and 81 in 2013 and 2014, respectively.

One more factor needs to be taken into consideration when perusing both players’ production tables. Both are seriously underperforming on ground balls this season, and this is due in large part to their extreme pull tendencies on the ground. Both have very large ground ball pull factors (number of grounders to pull side divided by number of grounders to opposite side) – 5.54 for Alonso, and 6.62 for Gyorko. Both are in overshift consideration territory, even though Gyorko is a righty. When you can consider overshifting a non-power hitter, as both of these hitters must be classified at present, it’s a win-win for the defense.

So how are these guys performing so poorly despite possessing near MLB average speed off of the bat? In Gyorko’s case, it’s the miniscule liner rate, coupled with the extreme grounder pull tendency, which makes exit speed almost irrelevant. With Alonso, it’s that same pull tendency on the ground, coupled with the fact that he almost never truly hits the ball hard in the air, even to pull. He has hit a meager five fly balls at 97.5 MPH or harder in 2013-14. Even Gyorko has hit 19 over that span. Alonso hits an extremely high percentage of fly balls in the dead zone that I call the donut hole, between 75 and 90 MPH, where MLB batters hit .080 AVG-.156 SLG in 2013. You’re way better off hitting a 65 MPH grounder in the right spot, than an 85 MPH fly ball. You’re even better off hitting a 65 MPH fly ball, as it might bloop in for a hit.

So what do we have in these two? I can’t see Alonso adding bat speed, or generating more torque with his stocky frame. Hand and wrist injuries have also thrown a crimp into things, though he has swung the bat well of late. He’s arb-eligible for the first time in 2015, and doesn’t stand to have much of a payday. I’d compare his situation to that of Justin Smoak with the Mariners in 2013. The club should look for an upgrade, and if it can’t find a sensible one in the short-term, ride out the arbitration process, hope for modest improvement, and allocate your dollars elsewhere.

As for Gyorko, I think there’s a little more hope. He too has suffered from nagging injuries, most notably plantar fasciitis, which doubtlessly have affected his play. The offensive bar is substantially lower at second base, and he has shown the ability to hit the ball out of the park to the opposite field, something not even remotely within Alonso’s grasp at present. It’s an older player’s skill set, but the liner rate should positively regress, perhaps making him a .250-.300-.420 type, acceptable at his position. To use another Mariner analogy, the Padres at one point might have though Gyorko was their Kyle Seager – but that ain’t happening.

The Padres need to locate their Kyle Seagers – truly above average offensive players who transcend park effects. They don’t have one on their major league roster, and might not have one in their minor league system. Catcher Austin Hedges might be an impact player, but isn’t an impact bat. Low-A 18-year-old first baseman Jake Bauers might be their best hope.

All is not lost, however. The Padres have a solid run-prevention group, with a sound pitching core and solid if unspectacular team defense, though they do have to get to the bottom of the injury epidemic pitchers throughout the system have endured. They’re playing some of their best ball of the season, and might have a run at .500 in them just yet, though that likely says more about the Rockies and Diamondbacks than it does about the Padres. The club’s new brass will have a clear mandate as the rebuilding process begins – find those above average hitters anywhere you can, be it the domestic or international amateur market, or via trade or free agent signing.

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