The Padres Bullpen

Who has the best bullpen in baseball? Boston’s is the most famous, filled with big arms and a big personality at closer, but the Red Sox have some competition for the title down in San Diego, where the Padres have four guys coming off ridiculous 2009 seasons, even if you may not have ever heard of them.

Okay, so, Heath Bell you know. He’s been an all-star and racked up 42 saves a year ago after spending several years as a premier setup guy. But before you get to Bell, the Padres throw out three no names, each of whom was terrific last year, and are among the hidden gems in baseball; Mike Adams, Luke Gregerson, and Joe Thatcher.

Among relievers who threw at least 30 IP last year, Adams had the third lowest xFIP (2.57) of any pitcher in the game, behind just Jonathan Broxton and Mariano Rivera. Gregerson (3.11) came in at #14, while Thatcher (3.31) was #27. In fact, all three actually had higher strikeout rates than Bell, the all-star closer, though when you’re picking between four guys with a K/9 over 10.00, you can’t really go wrong.

Perhaps most interesting of the group is Adams, who has battled through health problems but been dominant of late when on the mound. He racked up some crazy numbers in the 37 innings he managed to throw a year ago: 1.95 BB/9, 10.95 K/9, 50.6% GB%. Rarely do you see a guy who can miss so many bats while also throwing strikes and getting ground balls.

But, Adams is unique in another way; throughout his short major league career, he’s actually demonstrated a reverse platoon split.

Vs LH: 323 TBF, 2.39 BB/9, 9.11 K/9, 49.3% GB%, 5.6% HR/FB, 2.56 FIP, 3.15 xFIP
Vs RH: 371 TBF, 3.13 BB/9, 9.10 K/9, 36.7% GB%, 10.7% HR/FB, 3.84 FIP, 3.80 xFIP

The walk rate is significantly lower and the ground ball rate significantly higher, yet he has suffered no corresponding drop in strikeout rate when facing opposite handed hitters. It’s not like they’re hitting rockets off of him when they do make contact either, as his lower HR/FB rates show. If you didn’t know better, from looking at this line, you might think Adams was a lefty. His results would suggest that, at least.

But no, Adams is an RHP. He isn’t your typical situational reliever, though, as he mixes in five different pitches, including two breaking balls and a change-up in addition to his fastball and cutter. This expanded pitch mix gives him weapons against both RHBs and LHBs, and from the results, it seems like the pitches he features against lefties are a bit more advanced than his standard fare.

Given how well he’s able to control hitters from both sides of the plate, Adams is a natural fit for the 9th inning. If the Padres fail to contend, as expected, they’ll almost certainly be shopping Heath Bell at the deadline. As long as Adams’ arm is still attached to his body, expect him to end up as the Padres closer. Given his performance as a setup man, expect him to not only succeed, but to thrive.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

11 Responses to “The Padres Bullpen”

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  1. JH says:

    At the minor league level, the Padres also have one of my favorite sleeper prospects. Craig Italiano was just filthy after shifting to relief, running a 44/10 K/BB in 31.1 innings and a 5.71 G/F that I was pretty convinced most of the offseason was a typo (turns out it was real).

    He’s always had a pretty wicked fastball, but I’ve got Italiano pegged as a guy who could fly through the upper minors next year, potentially even reaching San Diego pre-September.

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  2. Don Coburleone says:

    Why not try to stretch him out and make him a starter? I mean 5 pitches and past success against Righties AND Lefties? Sounds like a potential starter to me or am I missing something?

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  3. Ben says:

    as a starter, his durability would be a concern.

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  4. Sam says:

    How about the Oakland A’s? We may have heard a bit more about them, but not a whole lot. And they seem to have a fantastic bullpen.

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  5. jirish says:

    I think it’s about time that someone give some props to the Padres pitching coach, and everyone who works on the pitching side for them. They always manage to do something with nothing, and something with something.

    Adams is fantastic. Injuries have taken a big chunk of his career-over 2 1/2 years-you got to appreciate his determination to get back on the mound as much as you admire the results.

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    • Red Sox Talk says:

      The Padres do have very good pitching every year, but my guess is that it has more to do with PETCO’s run environment than the coaching. I derived 2-year component park factors based on home/away differentials for hitters and pitchers and found that PETCO may depress ERAs by as much as 1.24 ER/9! Throw in that effect for half of a pitcher’s games, and you may have to rethink how good San Diego’s pitchers are.

      Of course, this is a bulk factor and probably affects relievers differently than starters, but it’s a major factor to consider nonetheless. The NL West is not the most competitive division, and you’d have to consider the weighted schedule as well.

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  6. LeeTro says:

    Adams had a tERA of 0.73 (matching his actual ERA) last year. Between a 7.4% LD rate and a normal FIP of 1.66 you tend to see ridiculous results like this.

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  7. Derek says:

    Umm since when do paper tigers dominate with the K’s? Sure Peavy’s ERA will never be as low since he’s at a new ballpark, but I fully expect him to rack up the K’s and win 14-17 games.

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