The first part of our daily series of season previews. Brandon Lee and Darius Austin collaborated on this edition.
What can we ask about the Padres? We know the rotation might be one of the worst in recent memory. We know that most people will never have heard of almost all of their players. We know that A.J. Preller is probably everyone inside baseball’s least-favourite GM after some questionable dealings with multiple teams last year.
Then it came to Brandon in a flash of inspiration; a question that no-one has answered, yet will offer immeasurable insight into the Padres.
How do the actual San Diego Padres match up to the fictional San Diego Padres, as featured on FOX show Pitch?
Yes, this is the only clear way to effectively preview a team projected for 69 wins without simply getting depressed. We just had a couple of problems. Firstly, as anyone who has seen Pitch will be thinking, there isn’t actually an awful lot of detail about the Pitch team on the field beyond lead character Ginny Baker, catcher Mike Lawson, and outfielder Blip Sanders – there’s a bit of backstory on Livan Duarte, and some non-statistical information on bit players, but that’s it. The fictional Padres manager Al Luongo and GM Oscar Arguella are also featured, but that’s about it in the way of main characters we can accurately profile. Still, we can compare those three players to the three best players on the real Padres, right?
That brings us to problem two: it’s pretty hard to identify the three best players on the real Padres. Why not play along at home? You probably thought of Wil Myers, right? Anyone else? Are you familiar with Yangervis Solarte? What about Ryan Schimpf? If you’ve looked at certain projections, Jhoulys Chacin or Luis Perdomo could be considered (yes, really), or maybe Austin Hedges‘ framing makes him a top candidate. It is not unreasonable to suggest that rookie outfielder Manuel Margot, who has 37 major league plate appearances to his name, may end up as one of San Diego’s top three players simply on the strength of his glove and the weakness of the roster.
Let’s try to answer our main question by first answering these two sub-questions: what do we actually know about the Pitch characters, and who are the three Padres players worth comparing them to?
In a universe that combines the Real Padres and Pitch Padres, the lineage of All Time Padres would probably run from Tony Gwynn to Mike Lawson to Blip Sanders (possibly with Dave Winfield’s years in San Diego at the front, and Trevor Hoffman getting an honorable mention bridging Gwynn and Lawson, if these additions float your boat). Blip has made multiple All Star appearances while also committing to San Diego via a team-friendly contract (though there were rumblings of him being on the trade block throughout the season). Lawson gets star billing on the show, but it’s Sanders who is the current best player, future cornerstone, and soon-to-be Kangaroo Court judge of the franchise.
We lack WAR for the Pitch Padres, but Sanders profiles as something like a 4 WAR player in 2016 – a borderline All Star player who is having a slight down year compared to his peak performance (but not down enough to completely derail his 7-year peak). Eyeballing the Fangraphs leaderboards, that would have put him behind Dexter Fowler (an All Star) and ahead of Charlie Blackmon (not an All Star), a spot that sounds reasonable enough. He’s also good enough to maintain at least that in future seasons, while a slightly higher 2017 projection might not be unwarranted.
Second best for the Pitch Padres is most likely catcher Mike Lawson, who has been presented in the show as the team’s most popular player, a future Hall of Famer, and childhood favorite of Ginny Baker. Though his catching days appear to be numbered (Cuban catching prospect Livan Duarte got an increased amount of playing time as 2016 progressed), the willingness of the franchise to move him to first base indicates that his offensive numbers could still play for at least a few more years. His easy selection as an All Star (though he missed the game with an injury and went on a sabermetrics-fueled tangent in his broadcasting tryout), and the Cubs’ willingness to put together a decent trade package confirm that he has at least something left in the tank.
Again, we don’t have a WAR number for Lawson, but we can try to place him on the 2016 leaderboards. He certainly doesn’t reach the level of Buster Posey (who is “very nice” according to Blip), but could fall in nicely between the Wilson Ramos and Yadier Molina at something like 3.0 WAR for 2016. We can slot him at 2.5 projected WAR for 2017 if he stays a catcher, and likely takes a hit if he moves full time to first base.
The third best Pitch Padre is probably Ginny Baker. In the show she slots in at the back of a Major League rotation, or someone who can pitch multiple innings out of the bullpen, with a screwball, fastball, slider, and changeup in her repertoire. Her All Star appearance is probably a little bit misleading – like Blip she was an injury replacement, but her selection was driven in large part by the historic moment being the first woman in the Majors. She is also the protagonist of the show, and can’t not make the All Star Game, and can’t not make the Pitch Padres top players list.
In the final episode of the season, Ginny mentioned in an interview with Rachel Patrick (Mike’s ex-wife) that she would rather be compared to other 23-year-old rookies like Blake Snell and Michael Fulmer rather than other great female athletes. In 2016, Fulmer put up a 3.0 WAR and took home Rookie of the Year, while Snell made 19 starts and accumulated 1.8 WAR. Ginny came up in mid-June and threw her final game of the season in early September. She was probably worth about a win on the season, and could reasonably project to be a 2 win player over a full season.
Myers is a given for the Real Padres, even if his projections (and indeed his overall performance in 2016) aren’t as exciting as a 28-28 season might suggest. The former Royals prospect might have finally put up the flashy fantasy production, but he is now limited to the easiest defensive position, doesn’t hit for average, and only has one fully healthy major league season under his belt. With some impressive baserunning numbers in 2016, Myers was worth between 3.5 and 4 wins, but both PECOTA and Steamer see enough regression there to project him as just a low to mid-two win player, even with an almost identical slash line. Still, the fact that Myers is a lock for top-three on this team speaks volumes.
Selecting the second best for the Real Padre is a little harder. Here’s a selection of the candidates, with their Fangraphs (currently just Steamer-based) projected WAR and PECOTA projected WARP:
Austin Hedges, C (1.4 WAR, 1.6 WARP)
Yangervis Solarte, 3B (1.6 WAR, 1.3 WARP)
Ryan Schimpf, 2B (1.5 WAR, 2.7 WARP)
Manny Margot, CF (0.9 WAR, 1.9 WARP)
Travis Jankowski, LF (1.1 WAR, 1.8 WARP)
Jhoulys Chacin (1.9 WAR, 1.3 WARP)
Christian Friedrich (1.7 WAR, 0.5 WARP)
Luis Perdomo (1.9 WAR, 0.2 WARP)
None of these are typos, that’s genuinely the list of the most positive projections. This is, to use the technical term, not good. Fangraphs seems to give the rotation more credit. PECOTA is moderately more generous on the hitting side, particularly with Ryan Schimpf, whose power it is completely buying: he’s projected to slug .482. Some of the pitching pessimism is playing-time related too; PECOTA just features Perdomo as a 40-inning spot-starter, whereas the Fangraphs depth charts have him as a 175 inning anchor for this rotation (yes, that is now something someone’s written about Luis Perdomo).
Given their barely-positive PECOTA projections, Perdomo and Friedrich have to go. Although he could easily prove to be the Padres’ best player in relatively short order, Margot does too. It’s not certain that he starts the year in the big leagues and there’s likely to be at least some adjustment period when he does arrive. The same goes for Hedges. While he finally hit in the minors last season, blasting 21 homers with a 146 wRC+ for Triple-A El Paso, he’s always been known as an extreme glove-first prospect and both of his tastes of the big leagues have the Mendoza Line looking more like the Mendoza Dot. If Hedges can combine his elite defensive skills with even a passable bat, he’ll be very valuable, but he’s yet to show it in the majors.
That leaves us with Solarte, Schimpf, Jankowski and Chacin. Solarte qualifies as the dependable option by a considerable margin, with over 1500 major league PA of a .328 wOBA and around average defensive ability. Schimpf has just a half season of ludicrous power under his belt. The .315 ISO he posted was actually not out of line with some of his minor league numbers and he almost broke the record for fly ball percentage at 64.9%. However, that also means his .217 average isn’t going to improve much, especially with the 31.8% strikeout rate he posted. If major league pitchers can figure out a more effective way to attack him in his second time around the league, .217 might be optimistic, while both Cory Spangenberg and Carlos Asuaje are potential replacements should the Padres decide Schimpf isn’t going to repeat his success.
Jankowski has the speed and some defensive metrics to suggest he could put up a three-win season as a full-time player even if his bat doesn’t develop much. The risk is that his .343 BABIP doesn’t hold up and even his .245 average slides, making it difficult for his OPS to top a mere .600 with hardly any power in the bat. On multiple occasions, Chacin has accomplished what few pitchers have: had success in Coors Field. Despite his mediocre K/BB ratio, both FIP and cFIP rate him as essentially a league-average pitcher over the course of his career. In this rotation, that makes him the de facto number one.
Ultimately, Solarte and Jankowski seem like the most appropriate selections. Solarte has one of the more secure roles on the team with relatively reliable production, while Jankowski has more questions with the bat but also some genuine upside.
So, who would win?
C – Livan Duarte (1.5 WAR)
1B – Mike Lawson (2.5 WAR)
2B – replacement
3B – replacement
SS – replacement
LF – replacement
CF – Blip Sanders (4.0 WAR)
RF – replacement
P – Ginny Baker (2.0 WAR)
[remainder of bench players and pitchers are also replacement level]
Lawson moves to first base to make up for honorable mention Livan Duarte, projected at 1.5 WAR behind the plate. Sanders and Baker retain their projections from above, and everyone else is replacement level.
Right there the Pitch Padres have a team that’s 10 wins above replacement, and that’s with 5 replacement level players in their lineup, and an almost completely replacement level pitching staff.
Much like Myers, Lawson is less valuable than he would be had he stuck at his original position, but has the bat to play first base. We’ll call that a wash. Jankowski might be close to Sanders if he could be at least an average hitter, but the projections certainly aren’t going there and we can’t either until we see a sustained period of success. Advantage Blip. Baker and Solarte again look fairly similar, useful role players who are certainly better than replacement but not more than league average. Based on this, it’s a slight edge for the Pitch Padres.
However, that’s not taking into account the fact that Ginny is not portrayed as the best starter on the team. There’s some debate about her being sent back to the minors early on. Her year-end numbers (8-5, 3.86 ERA, 86-42 K-BB in around 90 innings) are clearly intended to be major league quality without being ace-like. Even if she’s the number three starter on this team, that still suggests a rotation with more quality than the Real Padres. There’s also at least one player on the team who’s hitting close to .300 in the final episode.
A decent real-world comp for these Pitch Padres are probably the Chicago White Sox of 2015 and 2016 – the ultimate Stars And Scrubs teams with a pretty good core of players (Sale, Quintana, Abreu, Eaton) and very little else of positive value on the team.
Assuming that the rotation is also worth around 10 wins on the basis that Ginny isn’t more than the number 3, the Pitch Padres are already most of the way to the Real Padres (currently projected at 23 WAR on Fangraphs’ Depth Charts) without adding in any value from the other 16 players we don’t know anything about. Myers and Lawson are comparable; Sanders is probably as good as Jankowski and Solarte combined, and certainly better than anything the Padres have right now (although Margot could get there); Baker would arguably be the best starter in the Real Padres’ rotation. We’re calling it: the Pitch Padres are better.
Calling the Padres worse than a fictional team that only has four clearly valuable players – and two obvious stars – is not the most encouraging outlook. However, there’s an alternative way to approach this. Part of the reason the Padres are in this situation is Preller’s rapid pivot from an (admittedly disastrous) win-now approach to a long-term rebuild.
Drew Pomeranz, who definitely would be the best starter on this team even with his health concerns, was swapped for number one prospect Anderson Espinoza. All indications are that the 19-year-old Espinoza can be a genuine ace. Craig Kimbrel brought back Margot, and James Shields was moved for Fernando Tatis Jr., whose father you may be familiar with. All have star potential and are ranked as clear top-10 prospects on the team, even if there’s some serious lead time involved with Espinoza and Tatis. Margot, Hedges and Hunter Renfroe headline the talent that will contribute in 2017. If Renfroe can tap into his raw power in games, and the former two offer the defensive value they’re expected to, that’s three valuable major-leaguers the Padres didn’t have last year.
The Padres also drafted Cal Quantrill, a pitcher considered worthy of the first overall pick before Tommy John surgery, and were aggressive on the international market, picking up highly-ranked talents like Adrian Morejon, Jorge Ona and Luis Almanzar. Preller even picked up 2015 first round pick Josh Naylor for next to nothing in the Andrew Cashner trade. The 19-year-old has serious makeup concerns but also tremendous power. This is now an incredibly deep system; BP’s prospect staff called it “an overwhelming collection of young talent”.
Trajectory is relevant. Wil Myers and Mike Lawson might provide the same value at first base, but Myers is 26 and Lawson is past his prime. The 2017 Padres will probably be terrible. There’s a good chance the 2018 team won’t be much better. At some point, though, Mike’s bat will slow down, he’ll retire to become a manager or TV analyst, and the Padres will still have a collection of promising talent in their early-to-mid twenties. The Giants and Dodgers probably won’t be quite as simple to overcome, but the Real Padres won’t lose to the Pitch Padres every year. If only they could get Ginny Baker in the rotation this season.
Prediction: 66-96, last place
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