The Unique Strengths and Shortcomings of The Padres Pitching Development

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.

Why? How?

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.

padres heat

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.

Patrick Corbin’s Monster 2018 Is Also Historic

If you’ve been following baseball at all the last few years, you know that velocity has become extremely important. It seems like everyone throws gas. Per Statcast, a whopping 427 Major League pitchers have thrown at least one pitch at 95 mph or harder this season. Nearly 40% of those pitchers have done it 100 times or more. Five years ago, the number of pitchers who threw 95 or harder was only 394. That means that basically every team in the league has added a guy who can dial it up to 95 or better over the course of only a few years.

Accordingly, the average fastball speed has gone up a mile and a half over the last decade. And accordingly, hitters have had to adjust. Every tick of velocity, or even a fraction of a tick, matters. As Zach Schonbrun details in The Performance Cortex, that’s because there’s a gap between when a hitter decides to swing and when they initiate that motion, a leisurely latent period. Everyone’s brain is like this and we don’t know why the gap exists. But it does, and it’s a mere 50 milliseconds long, give or take a few, and it’s critical.

Gerrit Cole has thrown the most fastballs in the Majors this season at 95 mph or more, totaling 1,368. Consider this pitch visualization from Statcast of fastballs he threw to Matt Chapman on August 27 that qualify under that umbrella:

ColeHeat

The light yellow dots are when Chapman could have ID’d Cole’s heaters. The pink ones are when Chapman would’ve had to commit to swinging. His decision whether to swing would’ve had to come in between and a fairly sized portion of that time — those mere fractions of a second — would have required a window for that 50 millisecond delay between deciding and initiating his hack.

Chapman didn’t put any Cole fastballs into play that day.

This is what hitters face on a regular basis now. They can’t currently train to reduce that leisurely, 50 millisecond flash, and every tick up on fastballs forces them to decide to swing quicker and quicker. It’s also what makes what Patrick Corbin has done this season so much more impressive.

Plenty has been written about Corbin’s monster 2018. First it was Jeff Sullivan on how he was using his slider more than ever, and in different ways, effectively making two pitches out of one. It made up for his bad changeup. Then it was about how his velocity had gone down and how that could be the harbinger of injury for him and trouble for the Diamondbacks. The injury never came, his velocity went back up a little, and then Craig Edwards detailed his overall development from the time he broke into MLB. Most recently, Ben Harris dug into how Corbin’s sliders have given him a tremendous weapon against righties, who have gone from crushing him to cursing him.

Corbin has been the sixth-most valuable pitcher this season by fWAR. He’s struck out at least seven batters in each of his last seven starts, and 31% of all batters faced this year, which is the eighth-most in all of baseball. And in a day and age where velocity has become king, where every team wants it, his new repertoire is letting him achieve success in an unprecedented way. See the following chart, containing the pitcher in the top 10 in K% with the slowest average fastball going back through the last decade.

wild velo

Corbin has the largest gap between his own average fastball and the league’s in a given season over this time period, at 2.9 mph. The next closest, Madison Bumgarner in 2016, was only a 1.8 mph gap. After that, it shrinks to Jered Weaver’s 1.4 mph all the way back in 2010. And after that, the gap just keeps shrinking. None of the pitchers above were exclusively known for their fastball when they were leading strikeout getters, but it’s plenty fair to consider it an indicator of their success. It also underscores just how important Corbin’s sliders have been for him and the Diamondbacks.

Without the evolution of his breaking balls, Corbin’s fastball would leave him as a two pitch guy somewhere in the range of Julio Teheran (.4 fWAR) and Alex Wood (2.2 fWAR). Instead, he’s on pace to be worth at least nearly three times as much to his team.

Right now every little bit counts. Arizona currently leads the NL West at 73-60, but only by a half game over Colorado and one game over LA. They have 44.3% odds to make the playoffs and every whiff Corbin provides is going to have an impact.

Each whiff Corbin provides could also impact his next contract. He’s set to become a free agent at season’s end. Everyone remembers how last year’s market was an absolute mess for the players and, in another capacity, the fans, too. Corbin is only working with what he’s got but he appears to be zigging when everyone else is zagging.

Whether he can replicate this kind of performance moving into his 30s, or what he becomes if his velocity truly dips further, are questions as good as any. You can’t fake whiffs at the rate Corbin has gotten them, though. Surely, the answers will dictate millions of dollars, and could keep having an impact on playoff races for years to come.

K% and velocity data from FanGraphs. Feature image from Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today Sports