The Padres Rotation: Pitching in Petco

It’s no secret that Petco Park is a pitcher’s park. But for the sake of putting a face with a name, or rather some numbers with a narrative, I’ll point out that according to our basic park factors Petco was tied for the second most pitcher-friendly park last year. And prior to last year Petco had the lowest basic park factor in the league for nine straight seasons after opening in 2004.

Last summer, Bradley Woodrum discussed the changes made to Petco prior to the 2013 season and how they are affecting offense in the park. Offense is on the rise to some degree and that’s consistent with Petco not being the most pitcher-friendly park in the league last year for the first time in its existence. But it’s hard to say exactly how much the dimensions are bolstering offensive production. What we can say with some certainty is that even though it may not be the most pitcher-friendly park, it’s still safely pitcher-friendly.

Because of the nature of the park, pitchers for the Padres are always interesting to fantasy owners. So who is in line to potentially get the Petco bump this year? Below is a chart showing the five San Diego starters projected to throw the most innings along with their Steamer projections.

Ian Kennedy was OK in 2010 and 2012, great in 2011, and terrible in 2013.  The long story short to his recent struggles is that he lost the zone a bit and gave up more homers than he ever had before. The Padres ‘bought low’ on Kennedy at the deadline, but the pitcher-friendly environment wasn’t enough to overcome Kennedy’s issues in his small sample of starts. His walk rate was over 10% in ten starts with the Padres and was only 9.2% for the season. His HR/9 was also higher after moving to San Diego, which was likely due to the lack of control.

If Kennedy can fix the things that he can control, he’s the type of pitcher that can really benefit from Petco. Kennedy is on the fly ball side of the ground ball/fly ball spectrum, and a few fly ball pitchers who had more success in Petco than elsewhere spring to mind. Jake Peavy and Chris Young were both on the fly ball end of the spectrum as well, and they had much more success as Padres than they did with other teams. Below is a chart showing their stats as Padres and as members of other organizations.

So can Kennedy fix his own problems to take advantage of his new, friendly environment? The answer lies in his ability to find the zone again. He was still inducing whiffs and some weak contact last year as his K%, SwStr%, IFFB% and other swing and contact peripheral numbers were in line with his career numbers. But his first pitch strike percentage and zone percentage dropped noticeably.

Part of the problem was Kennedy switching from a four-seamer as his primary pitch to a sinker, which he threw for a ball at a higher rate. The sinker went for a ball about 2% more than the four-seamer. That’s not a huge gap, but he leaned heavily on those pitches as he threw his primary pitch about 60% of the time in each season. His curve and cutter also went for a ball more frequently. His change actually went for a ball a little less. As for why those specific pitches found the zone less often, your guess is as good as mine. His release point didn’t change. He didn’t lose velocity.

Steamer and Oliver both project Kennedy’s walk rate to bounce back and expect him to finish somewhere in between his great 2011 and OK 2010/2012. But drafters aren’t giving Kennedy’s 2011 much credit as his current NFBC ADP is 276 overall, which makes him the 70th starter being taken on average. If he reaches the numbers projected by Steamer, he could finish as a top 30 pitcher. He’s an excellent upside pick.

Like Kennedy, Josh Johnson is a candidate to get some help from having Petco as his new home park, but he’ll have to overcome some of his own issues before he can take advantage of the park. Also like Kennedy, Johnson has lost control of the zone. His first pitch strike percentage and zone percentage are well below where they used to be. Unlike Kennedy, Johnson has lost a lot of velocity in recent years, but he is still a bounce back candidate to some degree because he has maintained the ability to miss bats at an above average, if not elite, rate.

In the last two years Johnson has posted SIERAs of 3.86 and 3.73. In 2012 his ERA matched his SIERA, but his ERA was a ridiculous 6.20 last year despite having better strikeout and walk rates than he did in 2012. The ERA was so bloated because his HR/FB rate, BABIP and LOB% were all well outside the range that could be considered luck-neutral. Assuming he can maintain the strikeout ability and get back in the luck-neutral range of certain statistics, his ERA could come in below the 3.80-ish SIERA mark with a little Petco help. You can’t rely on him as a steady piece of your rotation because of his injury history, but when he’s healthy, feel free to give him a shot.

Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross both started their careers elsewhere, but they’re not new to Petco at this point. Both are entering their age-27 season and both had very good years last year. One of them is clearly the guy you’d rather own in 2014, but it’s probably not the one you would expect.

Mike Podhorzer has already looked at both of these guys this offseason, so I’m going to link to his pieces and quickly summarize his thoughts because I agree with Pod completely (Cashner piece, Ross piece). Basically, Cashner’s ability to throw hard, miss bats at an above average rate and get a lot of ground balls was very appealing going into 2013 despite some iffy control. Cashner ended up delivering a 3.09 ERA, but he did it without the strikeouts. The reason is that he simply used his two-seamer sinker more as the year wore on and his four-seamer less. The sinker got a lot of groundballs but not many whiffs.

The funny thing is that his ground ball rate was basically exactly the same as what it was in 2012 and right in line with his career ground ball rate. So more two-seamers didn’t help him generate more ground balls overall, but it did cost him whiffs and thus strikeouts. Unless he goes back to the four-seamer as his primary pitch, you can expect his ERA to trend towards his 3.80 SIERA from last year. And with an ERA in the high-threes and an average strikeout rate (and few wins), Cashner isn’t going to be all that valuable.

On the other hand, Ross was what Pod thought Cashner would be. He threw hard, he got lots of whiffs and lots of ground balls with a walk rate that was a little higher than average. He had a 3.17 ERA in 125 innings and a 3.06 ERA in 94 innings over 16 starts. He might be in line for a bit of regression, but if he can improve his walk rate, he might be able to mitigate the regression. And his walk rate could be lower because it was much better in the second half last year. It was 10.9% in the first half and 7.4% in the second half.

If Cashner and Ross had roughly the same ADP, Ross would be the better pick. But with their current ADPs, Ross is by far the better pick. According the the NFBC ADP, Cashner is going as the 35th starter while Ross is going as the 68th starter. At those prices, Cashner is going to have to drastically improve his skills or get some more BABIP luck to be worth it. But Ross may be a huge value.

We hoped you liked reading The Padres Rotation: Pitching in Petco by Brett Talley!

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Any thoughts on Luebke and his likelihood to be in the rotation?