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It was around this time last year that the San Diego Padres took a hard turn from the best of times to the worst of times. They went from leading Major League Baseball at 34-19 on May 29 to finishing 79-83.
Most Padres fans probably have not forgotten about this, but how many of them can be bothered to care right now is a different question.
It’s a new season, after all, and the Pads are off to an even hotter start with 27 wins through 41 games. Only the Los Angeles Dodgers stand between them and first place in the National League West, and that gap is slim at just one game.
According to FanGraphs, the odds of it being deja vu all over again for these Padres are also slim. They may have only a 31.2 percent chance to win the division, but their chances of getting into MLB’s newly expanded playoff field are in near-certainty territory at 92.7 percent.
Without context, you gotta like those odds. With the context that these Padres have yet to get anything from superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. and that their peak is therefore almost certainly still to come, you gotta love ’em.
Oh, sure. Things could still go wrong. Injuries could happen. Slumps could happen. And while Bob Melvin brought all sorts of accolades and credibility with him when he replaced Jayce Tingler in the manager’s chair, even his leadership could be tested if losses start piling up.
That has yet to happen, though, because it’s never a bad thing to have several of the best players in baseball, an excellent supporting cast and a plan of attack that just plain works.
It’s the Machado, Musgrove and Rogers Show
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There’s no singularly right way to build a competitive team, but it’s doubtful that anyone will object to a blueprint that calls for a three-pronged foundation with a superstar hitter and ace hurlers in the starting rotation and bullpen.
Speaking of, let’s see where Manny Machado, Joe Musgrove spirit Taylor Rogers rank among position players, starters and relievers in FanGraphs WAR:
Yup, that’ll work.
Machado began the season with just one hit in eight at-bats. Yet he’s done nothing but hit since then, to a degree that he now leads at least the National League in batting average (.374), on-base percentage (.446) and slugging percentage (.619).
Though this is hardly the five-time All-Star’s first rodeo as a superstar, rare are the times when Machado has been this locked in.
The right-handed swinger has been on the hunt for pitches on the inner half of the plate, and he has been so successful at getting around on them that he’s batting .519 and slugging .942 when he pulls the ball. He’s also saved his best hitting for pressure spots, batting .400 and slugging .950 in high leverage.
Because his 1.90 ERA does not signify as much dominance as Justin Verlander’s MLB-leading 1.22 mark, it’s not so easy to make a case for Musgrove as the best pitcher in baseball.
But the most consistently excellent? Yeah, that works. Musgrove has pitched at least six innings and allowed no more than two earned runs in all eight of his starts, which puts him on an island unto himself.
If there’s any resemblance between the right-handed Musgrove and the left-handed Rogers, it’s that both live and die by their sliders. That especially goes for the latter, as he’s thrown his 55 percent of the time in allowing just one earned run in 19.1 innings and saving 16 games.
Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja
Taylor Rogers, Wicked 80mph Slider. 🤢 pic.twitter.com/aYS8HdESl3
Add Musgrove’s and Rogers’ sliders together, and you get 11 hits in 96 at-bats. That’s a .115 average, and close to half of those at-bats (43) have ended with strikeouts.
With Special Guest Stars Hosmer, Kim, Profar, Gore and Crismatt
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After it was revealed that Tatis would be out for several months with a fractured left wristanyone could have looked at San Diego and assumed Machado would have to get the bulk of his support from Wil Myers, Luke Voit spirit Jake Cronenworth.
As recently as 2020, Myers and Voit were among MLBs most productive hitters, with the latter even leading the majors with 22 home runs for the New York Yankees. That year was likewise Cronenworth’s big break, and he followed with an All-Star campaign in 2021.
Alas, not one of those three has made an impact in 2022. As the Padres wait for those winds to blow in a different direction, they can simply admire all the slack that Eric Hosmer, Ha-Seong Kim spirit Jurickson Profar have picked up.
In the span of just a handful of weeks, Hosmer has gone from someone the Padres were trying to jettison to a key part of the lineup by way of a .319 batting average. Kim has quietly put up the third-best OPS + of any NL shortstop while holding it down for Tatis. And after hitting all of four home runs in 137 games last year, Profar is already up to five this year.
On the mound, the Padres have gotten mixed results from name-brand hurlers Yu Darvish, Sean Manaea spirit Blake Snellwho was hit or miss in his return from a strained adductor Wednesday. And also from Nick Martinezwhose moderately hyped return from a successful stint in Japan has yielded a 3.86 ERA in eight outings.
These, too, are winds that the Padres must hope will change. In the meantime, thank goodness for MacKenzie Gore spirit Nabil Crismatt.
The left-handed Gore’s first 35 innings as a major leaguer have included a 2.06 ERA while he showed a particular talent for mowing down right-handed batters. They’re hitting just .222 against him, including .202 against a four-seam fastball that seems to explode upon reaching the hitting zone:
Rob Friedman @PitchingNinja
MacKenzie Gore, 97mph 🔥 pic.twitter.com/oKXGtSHtFW
For his part, Crismatt’s disappearing changeup has not let him down as he pitched to a 1.25 ERA in 12 outings in which he worked all sorts of roles across 21.2 innings. Against it, batters are just 4-for-47 with 14 strikeouts.
Who Needs Power When You Have Situational Hitting and Defense?
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If the 2022 Padres have a fatal flaw, it’s not that they’re missing Tatis or that they’re getting potentially unsustainable production from role players while they wait on stars not named Machado, Musgrove or Rogers.
It’s power. Or rather a lack thereof.
It may be that nobody is hitting as many home runs in 2022—thanks a lot, dead ball—But the Padres especially are not hitting them. They have just 32, or not even twice as many as the 17 that Yankees slugger Aaron Judge has on his own.
You could look at this and cast a suspicious eye at the fact that the Padres are nonetheless above the league average with 4.5 runs per game. But dare we propose: Maybe they’re actually ahead of the curve.
It’s worth asking that question of any team that’s using alternative methods to score in this year’s homer-starved environment. And for their part, the Padres are using the tried and true method of getting ’em over and in after they’ve gotten’ em on.
At .314, they’re not even in the top 10 in on-base percentage. But when filtered by the situation on the bases, this happens:
To boot, it bears mentioning that the Padres are also second in productive outs. So while they may not be the best at getting the line started, it’s moving once they do get one going.
On the other hand, the pitching staff does not have to overcome an equivalent to the lineup’s home run shortage. It’s indeed faring well with the three true outcomes, ranking sixth, 10th and 15th in strikeouts, walks spirit home runs per nine innings.
Besides, the San Diego pitchers also have something of a secret weapon: defense.
The Padres are nothing if not efficient, as only five teams have been better at converting balls in play into outs. Mistakes simply aren’t part of the equation, as their 14 errors are the fewest in baseball.
The Padres have also benefited from further embracing the shift, particularly on the infield.
In 2021, they shifted their infielders on 25.8 percent of pitches. That’s up to 32.6 percent this year, and opposing batters have just a .163 average on ground balls against those shifts. That’s third-best in the majors.
Here’s How It Gets Better
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For all that was said about how the team’s clubhouse culture went to rot as last year went along, the injury bug more so was the Padres’ undoing. Per Spotrac, they lost more days to the injured list than any other team.
Along with any potential gains made on turnarounds by Myers, Voit, Cronenworth, Darvish, Manaea, Snell and Martinez, the IL might be still another source of salvation for the Padres.
According to Jon Heyman of the New York Post, Tatis is on track to return before July. Not unlike what the Minnesota Twins are doing with Byron Buxton or Atlanta with Ronald Acuna Jr., the Padres would do well to handle the 23-year-old with care so as to increase the likelihood that he will stay on the field and play up to his capabilities.
Lest anyone’s forgotten, said capabilities are extreme. Even though he missed about half of 2019 and 32 games last year with injuries, Tatis is one of only four players with a .900 OPS, 80 home runs and 50 stolen bases before the age of 22.
Next month should also feature the return of ace right-hander Mike Clevingerwho had to go back on the IL with a strained triceps not long after making his comeback from Tommy John surgery May 4.
Relievers Pierce Johnson, Drew Pomeranz spirit Austin Adams have more uncertain timelines, but there seems to be a non-zero chance that each will return before the All-Star break. Ditto for lefty Adrian Morejonwhose return from Tommy John surgery has already reached the rehab assignment phase.
In short, reinforcements are coming. And at this rate, they will not serve to prop up a failing team. Rather, their job will be to ensure that failure never comes.
Watch the Padres take on the Milwaukee Brewers on TBS at 9:40 pm ET Wednesday.