How the San Diego Padres Could Make their Outfield Defense Passable
The Padres have a new look outfield, but as many have already written, its defense may make you want to look away, or at the very least cringe on nearly every ball hit into the air. In fantasy baseball, the trio of Justin Upton, Wil Myers, and Matt Kemp might seem decent on paper (unless of course you play in some league that keeps track of defensive statistics, in which case, you’re weird and need help). But it’s a trio that is going to keep Bud Black’s hands full, and he may be the manager most willing to undertake such an exercise. I mean, just check out this gem of a game on SB Nation if you want an idea of Bud Black's level of tinkering.
|Wil Myers has a full no haircuts clause.|
As Dave Cameron pointed out back in December, the Padres’ outfield has the potential to post some very nice home run totals, while also posting a very bad UZR. Justin Upton was serviceable in leftfield for the Braves last season, posting just a hair under “average” with a -.09 (per Fangraphs). Wil Myers was slightly above average in rightfield for the Rays with a 1.3 UZR over 674.1 innings. Unfortunately for Myers, he’ll be tasked with patrolling a very large centerfield, at least for his home games, and so his numbers will almost certainly take a big dip. It’s saying something that his defense is the least of San Diego’s worries, though, as Matt Kemp, who figures to start in rightfield for the Friars, posted a cumulative -22.4 UZR between CF, LF, and RF (although he did manage a -3.0 UZR in right, where he spent just over 40% of his 1195.2 innings last year).
Rather than pile another article onto the heap that have already done a good job of explaining how this outfield could go incredibly wrong, I’d like to take a shot at figuring out ways that could keep the Padres’ offense strong without letting their outfield defense become the laughing stock of the National League. Here are a few ideas:
This is probably the most obvious idea, but all three starting outfielders are going to need rest to varying degrees. That rest will allow Bud Black to slot Cameron Maybin or Abraham Almonte into centerfield, where they posted UZRs of 1.1 and 9.7, respectively (Will Venable also posted a decent 4.4 UZR in ’14 over the course of 443.1 innings in rightfield, but I can’t imagine benching two of the three star outfielders, unless it’s late in the game with a lead). With rest doled out early and often, the Padres would only have to write a lineup with two of their three starting outfielders once or twice a week, at the very most.
|Justin Upton got a boomstick.|
Justin Upton should be the least worrisome of the trio, as he’s played 130 or more games in every season since ’09 and he only recently turned 27. Steamer currently projects him to play in 138 games, which seems in line with both his career norm and the fact that the Padres have a deep outfield. Any days he’s given off will allow Myers and Kemp to take the corners, with Maybin or Almonte slotting in at center.
Wil Myers is coming off a nasty wrist injury, so it will be interesting to see how strong he is going into the season and how hard the Padres want to test that wrist throughout the season. Steamer has Myers projected to play 130 games, which I think he can pull off if San Diego is proactive about giving him rest here and there throughout the season. He’s also only 24, so unless he’s completely broken already, he should be able to recover just fine.
|Kemp's injury history hangs a big shadow.|
The guy that Bud Black and the training staff are going to have an eye on the most is Matt Kemp. I think it was a best case scenario that Kemp was able to play in 150 games last season, given his arduous ’12 and ’13 seasons in which he only played 106 and 73 games, respectively. Steamer projects Kemp to play 128 games, which seems reasonable given that he just turned 30 and, hopefully, Bud Black looking to keep him fresh throughout the season anyways. Any days off given to Kemp are going to bolster the outfield defense significantly (at the cost of offense, of course), with Myers being able to slide back over to his natural position in right and having Almonte or Maybin manning center. But it’s easy to say that the Padres should give their star outfielders rest to keep them playing all season. What’s more interesting is figuring out when they should do it. But more on that in a bit.
The less the ball is put in the air to the Padres’ starting outfield, the better they’ll look. Fortunately, San Diego has one of the very best starting pitchers when it comes to producing groundballs: Tyson Ross. Ross was so good at inducing grounders last season, he managed to post the fourth best GB/FB ratio (2.58) among starting pitchers with a minimum of 90 innings pitched. That’s incredibly impressive when you consider that he tossed 195.2 innings last season. If you’re wondering whether last season’s numbers are an anomaly, Ross has compiled a 2.06 GB/FB career mark in 469.1 innings of major league work; that’s even more impressive when you compare those numbers to the league average GB/FB ratio of 1.29 over the past four seasons.
It’s a given, then, that the Padres starting outfield should try to be in the game for every one of Ross’ starts, as the ballclub will have the strongest offense on the field while mitigating their below average defense. What of the rest of the pitching staff?
San Diego needs a big season from Andrew Cashner, and if he stays healthy, he’s certainly capable of it. For his career, he’s been well above average at keeping the ball on the ground, with a 1.71 GB/FB ratio since his major league debut in ’10. Odrisamer Despaigne has also been very good at inducing ground balls, although he’s only tossed 96.1 innings in the bigs. Still, his 1.80 GB/FB mark is promising, but his odd array of pitches make it hard to figure what the future holds (as Beyond the Box Score pointed out, he’s throwing a whole lot of Eephus pitches. What.). Josh Johnson has always been slightly above average in terms of GB/FB, as evidenced by his 1.45 mark since ’10, but I think most would agree that cracking 120IP would be a success given his injury history. Brandon Morrow is another guy looking to bounce back, but his 0.97 GB/FB ratio may have the Padres starting outfield looking to run and hide.
Obviously Bud Black isn’t going to bench Kemp every time there’s a flyball pitcher on the mound, but judging by their staff there’s one guy that figures to compile a lot of innings and pose the biggest threat to their outfield. The Padres are expecting Ian Kennedy to accrue between 180 and 210 innings, much as he’s done the past four seasons. He’s generally compiled quality innings, especially with San Diego the past season and a half, but he tends to pitch to his spacious ballpark. In 2014, Kennedy posted a GB/FB mark of 1.05, well below the MLB average of 1.30. For his career, he’s been even worse, giving up 0.93 groundballs to every flyball. It’s on Kennedy’s starts that San Diego should make a point to bench Kemp. Not only would it keep Kemp fresh throughout the season by not having to start every five days, San Diego’s defense will be bolstered when it needs it the most. It would also put Kemp in line with his projected starts, as Kennedy projects to start 30 games, per Steamer.
Other Opportunities to Prioritize Defense
There are ten games in 2015 that the Padres will be able to make use of the designated hitter, which should give them the best possible lineup without sacrificing any defense. Unfortunately, if the Padres are in the race coming down the stretch, they won’t have the DH luxury, as their last interleague away series is also their last series before the All-Star Break.
Then of course are the late and close situations in which the Padres hold a lead, and particularly at a time when the hitter being replaced is not due up should San Diego relinquish the lead. These last couple of points may seem fairly obvious, especially given that it’s what most teams tend to do already, but I think that coupled with proactive rest, particularly when extreme fly ball pitchers are on the mound, the Padres can come out ahead more often than not. Or, at the very least, it won’t be their defensive setup in the outfield that causes them to miss out on October baseball.
I think San Diego was quite aware when they made the trades for their new outfielders that they’re not going to get 155+ games out of each of them. If they have to give them rest anyways, why not be proactive about it and bolster the defense at the same time?