On the eve of the 2013 season, Joe Sheehan drew a lot of snark for his prediction that the San Diego Padres would win the National League West. That division was home to the defending champion San Francisco Giants and the free-spending Los Angeles Dodgers, plus the Arizona Diamondbacks, who looked an awful lot like 105 percent of the Padres.
Sheehan was wrong in his prediction, and it took very little time for that to become evident: San Diego lost five of its first six, 10 of its first 12, 15 of its first 20. They went 71-71 from there, but the poor start blew their season out of the water.
Yes, Sheehan was wrong, but he didn’t deserve the derision he got over it. In police work, there are basically three kinds of detectives. The first, the one long pushed into obsolescence but of whom there are surely still a few out there, is the hunch man. The hunch man arrives at the crime scene without an evidence kit or a laptop or even a pair of white gloves. He surveys the scene, takes a few witness statements and, relying mostly on his experience with previous scenes, comes to a conclusion, which he then sets out to prove.
The second kind is the profiler. She does extensive study of the details of the crime, from the victim to the method to the possible motive. Using algorithms or heuristics drawn from objective analysis of past crimes, she then formulates a probabilistic profile. She builds a detailed silhouette of the criminal, and it becomes the job of more shoe-leather types to fill in that silhouette with a specific identity.
The third type is the evidentialist. She shows up without any preconceptions, although also without imagination. She will not make even a single leap of faith. If the crime is meticulously executed and care is taken not to leave a trail, she will be stumped, but thanks to her attention to detail, the slightest mistake will lead her straight to the perpetrator.
Both the hunch man and the evidence hound hate the profiler. The former hates that the profiler is so concerned with empirical data, and is unwilling to chase down the first lead they see. The latter disdains reliance on generality and probability, rather than specific, clear evidence.
The profiler is the best cop, though, and just so, Sheehan is one of the best analysts in baseball. When he errs, he errs through over-reliance on typology and the shapes of rosters or skill sets. While old-school reporters muse about the character and effort level of players, and many 20-year-olds try to use the flood of data available to them to project the game more precisely than is possible or even rational, Sheehan and his ilk use history, statistics and the structural truths of team-building to make probabilistic forecasts, and at least when they get one wrong, it’s possible to see how it happened. They aren’t chasing red herrings or getting tunnel vision.
That said, the Padres weren’t a great pick last season. They had a catcher who would serve a 50-game suspension to begin the season, and their star third baseman was to miss the first few weeks with an injury. Their pitching was thin, and two of their key offensive cogs—Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin—were and are major injury risks. As a team, they were a good story in the hands of a bad writer, an intriguing something that was destined not to become a truly satisfying anything. That will happen to Joe sometimes. He shops for profiles, for teams with deep offenses, versatile benches and upside risk. The Padres fit the age profile of a breakout team. They had players with pedigrees, but who had struggled or flown below the radar the year before. They had tons of pitchers you could tick off on your fingers, although practically no one who had actually proved themselves able to pitch effectively and remain healthy throughout a full MLB season. Sheehan liked the shape of the team, and overlooked one or two too many specific flaws because of that.
With what they’ve done since late July, though, the Padres might be swinging the pendulum, such that by mid-March, it will be the other two types of baseball pundit who overrate them. They may even have done enough that it won’t be overrating; they’ll simply fulfill Sheehan’s prophecy a season too late.
That began at the trade deadline, when despite being out of contention and standing to lose their starting shortstop to a PED suspension for the rest of the year, the Padres acquired Ian Kennedy from the Diamondbacks for, frankly, nothing important. It continued Tuesday, when they struck an inspired deal with free-agent right-hander Josh Johnson, he of the very questionable health but the seemingly unbounded ceiling. It’s clear that Johnson’s injury history and miserable 2013 numbers (a 6.20 ERA and 15 homers allowed in 81.1 innings pitched) put a serious damper on the market for him. Otherwise, San Diego would certainly not have been able to get him for just a single-season, $8-million commitment, let alone hold an option for $4 million for 2015 if Johnson fails to start at least seven times. After all, he still struck out 83 and walked just 30. If the move to PETCO Park brings down his home-run rate, and if he can stay healthy, watch out.
With Kennedy and Johnson edging in front of Andrew Cashner at the front of the rotation, the Padres have some name-recognition value there for the first time since they traded away Jake Peavy. They probably have a much stronger starting staff than they did last season, especially if they can get back Casey Kelly, Cory Luebke, Joe Wieland or any of the dozen other guys it felt like they lost to Tommy John surgery last year.
The pundits will come, if not now then in the spring, and they’ll start singing a song very similar to the one Sheehan sang last spring. Even if the Giants and Dodgers end up the favorites, the Padres will get some respect, and it will be past due. The particulars that those more demanding analysts look for are there now. The Padres are sexier than they once were. For Sheehan, it’s too late to look like a genius. He might even shy away from them this year, with guys like Will Venable and Chase Headley and Carlos Quentin phasing out of their primes and into decline, and with the gigantic injury risk Johnson presents. While he was wrong to pick them last season, though, the pick reflected solid thinking, and he might have been just an acquisition like Kennedy and Johnson from being right.Next post: David Murphy Keeps Indians on Good Side of Platoon Battle
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