Our poll, asking readers to vote on where they think the 2012 Padres will finish in the division, has produced some surprising results. After a 91-loss season in 2011, it would be understandable to see a great deal of pessimism. However, it looks as if the Friar Faithful are showing unprecedented optimism. At the time of this post, votes for a first place finish are leading the poll by a full 4% over the next highest result, third place. And with 230 votes, this is a decent sample size.
So let’s translate this optimism into a projection of what the team needs to do to actually finish first. They’ll need some combination of luck, an increase in offensive output, and more timely hitting.
Luck is the often forgotten key to success. Every team experiences it to some extent. Some teams, like the Padres, need more luck than other teams, like the Yankees. A well hit ground ball may take a bad hop. If it’s the Padres on defense, that’s bad luck. If it’s the Padres batting, that’s good luck. There’s no doubt, though, that this bad-hop grounder had a level of luck associated with it. It’s more than ground balls though. A fly ball that’s hooking can be fair by inches for a home run or foul by inches for a strike. A sawed off bat on a fantastic pitch could distract a fielder, leading to a hit. There are countless plays in baseball that rely on some amount of luck. The Padres need a few more of those to break their way in 2012.
While the Giants were competing with the Padres for worst offensive NL team, they were also competing with the Diamondbacks for the NL West for most of the year. The difference between the Giants and the Padres was a pitching advantage. The Padres had good pitching last season, but the Giants had great pitching. With Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Tim Lincecum, the Giants were a dominant staff, and that staff kept them in most games. However, they ultimately fell to the Diamondbacks still. Had their offense been slightly better, they may have had a shot at the division. The same will be true of the Padres. Increased production on the offensive side of things will put them in a better position to win. We’ve already done a runs scored projection showing the Padres should score quite a few more runs this season, but how will they do it?
The Padres had the highest strikeout percentage in all of baseball last season at 21.7%. That means 21.7% of the time last year the team was taking themselves out of the equation. This of course led to lower batting averages and lower on-base percentages. The team, no doubt, needs to cut down on strikeouts. They swung at 30.1% of pitches outside the strike zone, but made contact with those pitches just 63.9% of time – good enough for second worst in all of baseball. These swings at pitches outside the zone also contributed to a lower BAbip. Simply improving one area – plate discipline – will help the Padres become much better offensively. The team was pressing last year, and in doing so, swung at a lot of bad pitches.
Finally, timely hitting comes into play. Hitting with runners in scoring position is big, and the Padres were terrible at it last season. They could get runners on base, and many of those runners would steal second. Then, nothing would happen as the Padres would strike their way out of the inning or ground their way out of the inning or fly their way out of the inning. One of the most telling statistics of their inability to find those timely hits is Win Probability Added. Basically, every game is charted in terms of win probability for each team. The win probability can change by inning, by out, and even by pitch. Changing the win probability to their favor would equate to a positive WPA. Changing it to the negative, or giving the game away, would change it to the negative. The Padres were 27th in all of baseball in WPA with -8.12. This means, as a whole, the Padres reduced their chances of winning by 8.12% throughout the season. A product of timely hitting, WPA tells the story of the Padres in ability to hit in the clutch or even hit in general.
There are no clear cut answers to solve the above problems for the Padres, but identifying them is a start. There is no doubt the front office is aware of these issues. Josh Byrnes has already made multiple changes to the roster in hopes of correcting the problems. However, we won’t know if the changes made a difference until games are played in the regular season.
Fan optimism is high, and that’s a good sign. Hopefully it will translate to a boost in attendance and support for this Padres team. Beyond that, hopefully the optimism will become reality.