A.J. Preller Allays Allure of Petco Park Pitchers

The San Diego Padres have probably created more buzz than any other Major League Baseball team this offseason. New GM A.J. Preller added to his club a few position players who are pretty good in fantasy baseball terms – a couple of them really good, a couple of them who could be (but could also not be). The change in home venue for each doesn’t really affect his projection on offense negatively, either. The new guys all used to play in pretty pitcher-friendly yards.

A cool fantasy baseball thing related to the new guys’ pitcher-friendly yard, Petco Park, is that it has long helped its team to be a sort of fantasy goldmine. When fantasy baseball players search for pitching sleepers and fliers, they usually check San Diego’s roster for youngsters, retreads, and anyone else the Friars might give a shot that year. Petco Park has always had good park factors for hurlers, and the club’s coaching staffs (latest edition led by manager Bud Black and pitching coach Darren Balsley) have good reputations, too.

Now, :-(. The source of the Padres’ newfound buzz will make the cool fantasy baseball thing less cool. Perhaps a lot less.

See, the new guys don’t make the Padres good overall, as Jeff Sullivan wrote just before they officially acquired two of the new guys. Although, to be fair to the Padres, he did so before they acquired a couple of the other new guys. Although, to be fair to Jeff, their third new outfielder doesn’t necessarily make them good, either, as Dave Cameron wrote.

As you have probably guessed, this mostly has to do with defense. And it may start in the outfield, but it travels through the infield and to catcher. The Padres’ projected lineup, at this stage, isn’t exactly home to a legit Gold Glove Award candidate.

(Warning: I’m far from an expert on defensive metrics. Please bear with me. If you see something to correct or want to add to the discussion, then please do, I’m all for it. I just wanted to start someplace. Thanks to Eno for some tips on how to approach it.)

2015 (projected) 2014 (of proj. leader)
Pos Leaders DRS UZR /150 Def
C Derek Norris* -3 -0.6
1B Yonder Alonso 9 3.9 11.1 -1.4
2B Jedd Gyorko -9 -1.8 -2.8 -0.2
3B Will Middlebrooks -5 -0.6 8.1 0.3
SS Alexi Amarista* 7 0.5 0.9 7.4
LF Justin Upton  0 -0.9 -1.1 -7.7
CF Wil Myers* -7 1.3 2.5 -3.0
RF Matt Kemp* -3 -3.0 -8.8 -26.5

To be fair to the 2015 Padres, naturally, 2014 numbers don’t tell the entire story. I do know that this is just as true of defensive metrics as it is for any other category. That’s partly why I included a few asterisks. Norris graded out as just above replacement level in his first couple of seasons. Kemp’s Defense rating encompasses his 2014 work in center field and left field, where his UZRs were terrible; the rest of his marks are only for right field, where he hasn’t been too shabby – a little below replacement level.

But, if I’m going to give those caveats, I also have to point out the counter-caveats. Norris isn’t very good at framing pitches, something for which Defensive Runs Saved and Def don’t account. Although Amarista rated as a plus on the whole, shortstop was his worst position; he wasn’t a standout there, as his numbers for only that position try to demonstrate. Lifetime at short and the middle-infield spots combined he’s been below replacement level. And, of course, there’s Myers, whose numbers mostly reflect his work as a right fielder. At this point, he appears to be the club’s starting center fielder, and that’s decidedly not a good thing.

Let’s compare the Padres’ projected team defense in 2015 to its 2014 lineup and performance.

(For projected Def ratings, I took projected Fielding Runs by position for the Padres and then added the positional adjustments. I didn’t want to assume that they had done so already just because Fld was broken down by position. I could be incorrect. Either way, though, the sum effect on the team is the same.)

2014 Team, by pos. 2015 (projected) Team Diff (Def)
Pos Leaders (# gms at pos.) DRS UZR /150 Def Leaders Def
C Rene Rivera (89) 6 11.5 Derek Norris 10.8 -0.7
 Yasmani Grandal (76)
1B Yonder Alonso (77) 9 3.0 3.0 -9.4 Yonder Alonso -8.1 1.3
 Tommy Medica (46)
2B Jedd Gyorko (109) -10 -0.9 -0.8 1.6 Jedd Gyorko -0.3 -1.9
 Alexi Amarista (21)
3B Chase Headley (76) 10 7.8 8.1 10.3 Will Middlebrooks -0.5 -10.8
 Yangervis Solarte (45)
SS Everth Cabrera (90) 9 -4.8 -4.4 2.6 Alexi Amarista 5.8 3.2
 Alexi Amarista (73)
LF Seth Smith (102) 7 -10.1 -9.6 -17.5 Justin Upton -10.8 6.7
 Carlos Quentin (32)
CF Cameron Maybin (86) 7 7.6 6.6 10.0 Wil Myers -7.3 -17.3
 Will Venable (76)
RF Will Venable (75) 14 6.4 5.6 -1.0 Matt Kemp -15.3 -14.3
 Chris Denorfia (55)
8.1 -25.7 -33.8

Again, to be fair to the 2015 Padres, there are potential issues with my illustration. Metrics for defense, again particularly for one year, are imprecise. Generally speaking, though, this doesn’t look good. The Padres have, in recent years, appeared regularly in the top half of the table (including multiple years in the top 10 or even approaching the top five) in Baseball Prospectus’ measure Defensive Efficiency. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that they finish lower next season.

The Padres’ lineup isn’t etched in stone yet, naturally. All three of those outfielders, particularly the one in right, have had health problems. The team’s best outfield defenders, if they remain in town, will be on the bench, but only until one of the new guys is injured.

Middlebrooks could be fine defensively, but he could also turn out to be nightmarish, as Cameron wrote. (Ignore the David Ross thing, since that report turned out to be false.) The third baseman could also flop with the stick – again – also as Cameron wrote, so he’s no lock to lead the team in innings at the hot corner. Maybe Solarte will have to step in … although, you know, he isn’t much of a defender, either.

OK, well, considering Preller’s heretofore aggressive actions and the players still on the roster who are without places to play, Amarista, clearly more of a super-utility player, may not be San Diego’s starting shortstop by opening day. But, if you think about it, a theoretical, additional acquisition could make the situation worse, since shortstop is the most difficult position to field (which defensive metrics attempt to convey) and, thus, at which to find above-average fielders … especially available ones.

I should acknowledge that the Padres haven’t been great on defense in every year. They, as an organization, have tended to stress fundamentals and execution on defense more so than others because they have tried to squeeze as much as they could from the margins. It hasn’t always worked, but they have tried, and it has worked sometimes. Maybe they’ll continue to do that with Preller at the helm. Maybe they’ll succeed on those things with this next group. Will the newbies be willing to listen? Maybe all, maybe some, maybe none.

And then, there’s catcher framing. Talk about an as yet inexact science. But the data we have for the players up for discussion is pretty convincing.

2014 Catcher Framing
Sample +Calls per game RAA
2014 Padres catchers
 Rene Rivera 6135 1.75 18.3
 Yasmani Grandal 5224 1.43 12.8
2015 Padres catchers
 Derek Norris 6935 -0.19 -2.2
 Tim Federowicz 1613 -0.56 -1.5

The Friars had some of the best in the game at this skill in 2014. Rivera and Grandal were extremely good in smaller sample sizes in 2013, too, and are generally regarded for their ability to massage the home plate umpire. (Figuratively speaking – don’t get any ideas, pal. Hands where blue can see ‘em.) Norris, not so much. He “stole” calls at a positive rate in 2013, but in a smaller sample. Federowicz was a negative then, too. Neither is considered adept at this type of aid to the pitcher.

Eno suggested that I take the Padres’ 2015 projections for defensive metrics and compare them to those of other teams that have already performed that way. I could then use the comparisons to speculate on the good and bad defenses’ impacts on BABIP against team pitchers and even throw out numbers of new hits per the set of balls in play they’d theoretically generate. That’s a great idea. I didn’t feel comfortable with it, though. If he or someone else can do it, sweet.

I’ll do a little something else, although I don’t know that it means much. In the Petco Park era, the worst team mark in BABIP against pitchers is .295 (2005), and there are a couple of .294s in there. The best (.276, 2006) is the only one below .283. Basically, the range is .283 to .290. There are also some years of bad D mixed in there with some years of good. The quality of the pitchers who threw all the innings – even if they were same pitchers, different years – isn’t the same, either, though. The two most relevant years are 2013 (.292) and 2014 (.289), of course, because that’s when the dimensions were as they are now. I just think it’s interesting that Steamer projects Padres pitchers to yield an average on balls in play of .307 in 2015 … even if Steamer tends to regress to league-average BABIP too close to automatically for my taste.

Speaking of changes in dimensions, might as well take a look at their effects on park factors for Petco Park.

Season Basic 1B 2B 3B HR SO BB GB FB LD IFFB
2004 92 97 91 107 90 103 99 98 99 96 98
2005 92 97 91 107 90 103 99 98 99 96 98
2006 92 97 91 107 90 103 99 98 99 96 98
2007 91 97 90 101 90 104 100 98 99 97 100
2008 92 96 89 100 91 104 102 98 98 96 99
2009 91 96 90 103 90 103 102 99 98 97 97
2010 92 97 93 105 89 103 103 100 98 97 97
2011 92 97 93 105 89 103 103 100 98 97 97
2012 92 97 93 105 89 103 103 100 98 97 97
2013 94 98 95 102 96 102 101 101 98 98 95
2014 94 98 95 102 96 102 101 101 98 98 95

Petco Park remains good for home run suppression – but not nearly as good as it was before 2013, when it was similar to AT&T Park or PNC Park. Thanks to a construction crew, it’s more like Turner Field or Tropicana Field, for example. In general, it’s a tad better for offense than it used to be. Still not good, but not as bad.

So, at Petco Park, things within the pitcher’s control – at least the long balls – don’t go well quite as often as they used to. Things outside the hurler’s control probably won’t, either. And their pitches will probably have a smaller margin for error. At some point, these numbers start to amount to something that seems as if it could be pretty powerful.

We can speculate, reasonably, in any given year about how some changes a team has made will affect its defense in the future and, thus, its pitchers’ results. The impact may not be significant or noticeable or even turn out to be negative. But, based on what we’ve learned about defense, we can offer conjecture about when a team has done itself a disservice, one that could lead to more unfavorable outcomes.

In this instance, I think, we can safely speculate that the Padres have made life, at minimum, a little harder on their pitchers. Their new lineup is shiny, but their regular defensive alignment should result in more unfavorable outcomes. The number or rate of negative results may not be so noteworthy that it makes any particular pitcher on the Friars a much worse fantasy pick, or much of one. But it’s also possible that many pitchers are affected, some of them significantly. They could be 2014 Cleveland Indians bad.

That’s something for which to account in drafts and auctions. San Diego probably isn’t the default depot for cheap pitching anymore. Fantasy owners may want to think a little more about reaching or topping for their favorite Padres hurler. Ian Kennedy might be just a guy again. Andrew Cashner should think twice about ditching strikeouts for ground balls – except that he already can’t stay healthy, part of the reason he made the switch to more ground balls in the first place. Tyson Ross, who has his own past health concerns, was already due for a little regression. And I’m always looking for reasons to be interested in Brandon Morrow, but this one might not be quite as good as I’d hoped.

We hoped you liked reading A.J. Preller Allays Allure of Petco Park Pitchers by Nicholas Minnix!

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Nicholas Minnix oversaw baseball content for six years at KFFL, where he held the loose title of Managing Editor for seven and a half before he joined FanGraphs. He played in both Tout Wars and LABR from 2010 through 2014. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasMinnix.

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Brian
Guest
Brian

Nice article, kind of sums of what we’ve all been thinking. It’s too bad we lost out little corner of the baseball world we could go to to grab a no-name pitchers that could contribute to a fantasy team. I’ll probably avoid almost all of their pitchers except Ross. Ross has had enough groundball tendencies that I don’t think the closer fences and terrible OF defense will affect him as much as Kennedy and Morrow. Although it sucks Middlebrooks is at third. That’s obviously an significant downgrade from Headley. With a hefty SSS caveat, Ross’ BABIP was .285 in the first half last year (w/Headley) and .304 in the second half (w/o Headley).

Grant
Guest
Grant

If you’re in a saber savy league, you might be able to get them for less than before. No way to tell, but it’s a thought.