Imagine, if you can, being a top-10 performer in your field. And not only are you top-10 now, or in the last year. You’ve been top-10 for a decade. High five!
Now, imagine that another member of your team is not. Imagine that they’re not even above average or just average. Imagine that they’re almost the absolute worst in your field. And not just recently…but have been for as long as you’ve been good.
What we really just contemplated was the dichotomy of the San Diego Padres pitching staff from 2009 through 2018. The team’s relief corps has been the fourth-best bunch over the last decade, accruing 38.9 fWAR. They’ve had some truly notable single-season relief performances: Luke Gregerson, Heath Bell, Mike Adams, and Craig Stammen each accounted for at least two wins in a single season during that time. Brad Hand and Kirby Yates pushed that number in separate seasons. And, in classic bullpen fashion, plenty of others chipped in positive value on a regular basis all along the way.
Reliable bullpens are almost an oxymoron, like saying you’ll have jumbo shrimp in a plastic glass. Having one over the course of a decade would intimate a sound ballclub. But since we know the Padres, we also know that they’ve only surpassed 77 wins once in the last ten years. And it’s in large part because their starting pitching has been abysmal. They’ve only accounted for 77.6 fWAR since 2009. That’s the second-worst in all of baseball.
If we look at how hard the average starter has thrown over the last ten years, and then consider how hard the average Padres starter threw over that same time, we get a sense of what San Diego has been sending to the mound.
For the better part of a decade, the Padres have had starters who couldn’t even match the league average fastball. Velocity may not be everything, but it always plays. Imagine being any of the other 29 teams and seeing the Padres on the schedule. Your hitters know they’re going to see less heat. They know they’ll likely have more time to see a pitch, whether it’s a fastball or a breaking ball or something off-speed. They know their skills will remain the same while they swing at stuff a tick below for the next few days.
They haven’t deliberately been soft tossers, though. Mat Latos was a stud who was traded and then flamed out. Cory Luebke had Tommy John and saw his career fizzle slowly like the end of a match. Casey Kelly was a top prospect who never developed. Tyson Ross has suffered a medley of arm injuries. Brandon Morrow briefly started for the Padres and then became successful elsewhere, notably as a reliever. Andrew Cashner was another top prospect who didn’t develop. Dinelson Lamet went down with Tommy John. Luis Perdomo hasn’t been able to develop a third pitch, became ineffective, and then hurt his shoulder.
All of them threw with at least league average fastball velocity or better and offered considerable potential, or still do. But none of them — at least so far — have become dependable for the Padres.
San Diego’s rotation for 2019 currently projects to be Joey Lucchesi, Robbie Erlin, Eric Lauer, Brett Kennedy, and Chris Paddack. Only Paddack throws harder than league average. Matt Strahm and Dinelson Lamet will also likely be in the mix for starts, and they throw harder than league average, too. Strahm, in particular, has a bunch of upside. They all come with their questions, but they offer a glimpse into possible change in direction for the team.
By and large, though, reliability has been left to the bullpen, almost by default. And Padres relievers have kept themselves sustainable with their sliders.
Since 2009, sliders have been the most prominent breaking ball for relievers, being thrown a shade under 18% of all offerings. Padres relievers, however, have thrown them nearly 21% of the time. An additional three percent might not seem like much. After all, whether you get a 94 on a test or a 97, you still get an A. But in this context, one where Padres relievers have also thrown the fourth-most pitches since 2009, an additional three percent means they’ve thrown more than 7,000 sliders compared to the league average.
In the last two years, in particular, those sliders have had more depth and drop than the rest of the league thanks to guys like Brad Hand and Robert Stock. Having breakers that fall with style like that is the kind of thing that helps separate you from the crowd.
It’s possible that kind of distinction has been aided by pitching coach Darren Balsley, who has held his position with the Padres since 2003. (The only pitching coach with a longer tenure is Don Cooper of the White Sox, who’s held his job since 2002.) Balsley clearly communicates well: he’s survived multiple owners, four GMs, and three managers. Last October, Dustin Palmateer of The Athletic did a deep dive highlighting how Balsley has had the most impact on waiver wire acquisitions and, perhaps unsurprisingly, relievers. However, that’s also been the bulk of what the Padres have provided him.
That may soon change. The organization has collected a host of high-octane pitching prospects. MacKenzie Gore, Luis Patiño, Michel Baez, Adrian Morejon, and Chris Paddack (who should be in the Majors this coming season) are just a few guys who pump plus heat and offer additional upside. Should they all remain starters, the team’s average fastball velocity — and talent — would easily vault up the ranks.
They might have to look to free agency if their prospects don’t all become starters, though; and given the bust rate of prospects, that’s more likely than not. But regardless of what regime has been running the franchise in the last ten years, they’ve demonstrated a reluctance to dip into free agency in any significant way. Per Spotrac, the team’s payroll has ranged from 17% to 53%(!) below league average since 2011 (as far back as the site’s data goes). Spending in free agency isn’t guaranteed to be a success by any means, but refusing to do it at all keeps it from ever being a possibility.
The rapid pace at which baseball changes makes it difficult to evaluate a 10-year stretch of performance for any player or team. When it comes to that change, sometimes it’s positive to zig when everyone else zags. The Padres haven’t done that in a way that’s prompted success, having ultimately fallen short at developing pitchers who put them in a position to win and instead having to settle for pitchers who more often just keep it close.
If San Diego can finally develop any of their abundant prospect arms, they could become a dangerous team in a hurry. Until then, we’ll be waiting.
RP Slider usage data calculated from Statcast. Payroll info from Spotrac. All other data from MFanGraphs. Feature photo from Getty Images.