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March 20, 2023

What Went Wrong: Padres 2010 Season Review Part Two

For a team picked to win 71 games to finish 90-72, you could say that very little went wrong for the 2010 San Diego Padres.  That, however, would be an external view.  The flip side of the equation is a team which stood with the best record in the NL, 27 games over .500 and 6 1/2 games clear of the NL West field on August 26th, only to finish out of the playoff chase altogether.

What went wrong?  What fell apart over the final five weeks of the season?  Which strategic mistakes cost the Padres down the stretch?  And which season-long problems rose up to become factors by year’s end?  My analysis is below.

1) Pitching Petered Out

Padres Nationals BaseballSan Diego’s pitching staff (and ballpark) served as the bedrock of the 2010 Padres.  Lifted by the most dominant pitchers’ park in baseball, the Friars fashioned a 2.90 home ERA, compared to a 3.91 season ERA on the road.  However, as the year wore on San Diego’s reliable staff started to falter.

Team ERA by month:

April: 2.91

May: 3.08

June: 3.30

July: 3.70

August: 3.71

September: 3.66

While the Padres’ team ERA dropped a tick in September, the staff allowed their highest opponent’s batting average (.253), on-base percentage (.321) and OPS (.699) in the final month.

Amazingly, other than a couple of wobbles from Luke Gregerson, San Diego’s bullpen remained indomitable all season long.   The starting staff really struggled down the stretch, lowlighted by Mat Latos’ September/October run of 22 earned runs allowed in 35 innings (5.66 ERA).  Season long rotation regulars Jon Garland (1-3, 4.25) and Clayton Richard (2-3, 4.98) also were hit harder after August.

2) Padres Played Against Petco Late

punchless padresAs good a job as the Padres did of maximizing their ballpark from April to August, they strayed away from the form which had suited them so well when the stretch run arrived.  Part of this was due to circumstance (injuries to Jerry Hairston Jr and Tony Gwynn), part due to trades (Miguel Tejada and Ryan Ludwick taking time from faster players), and part due to scouting (teams catching up to the Padres’ delayed steal tactics among other things), but San Diego went away from being the Go-Go Padres in August and September.

General manager Jed Hoyer admitted as much in the week after the season ended, saying “I don’t think we did quite as good a job of playing to our home ballpark as we did earlier in the year.”

What makes Petco Park work?  Defense.  Speed.  The ability to scratch out a single run in an inning here and there.  And a confident pitching staff which knows how to use the dimensions to their favor.

Padres pitchers would relentlessly pound the outside corner to righties, inside corner to lefties at Petco, daring hitters to test the gap in right center field.  Well hit balls generally found their way into the gloves of Tony Gwynn and Will Venable in center and right field.

By the stretch run, Tony Gwynn’s Gold Glove-caliber defense was often replaced by Chris Denorfia, who was average at best in center field.  Venable was playing center or left, with Ryan Ludwick a step slower covering the right field gap.  And the up-the-middle defense which had been so strong with Hairston and Cabrera early in the year was manned by limited-range fielders in Tejada and David Eckstein.

It wasn’t a conscious decision to go away from what worked, but by September, the Padres had become a station-to-station offense waiting for the big hit, while opponents were taking advantage of creases in the defense.  The result was not only the worst OPS of the season allowed by the pitching staff, but by far the worst month of the year for the Padres’ offense (.229/.293/.342, 2.89 RPG).

3) Ludwick was a dud.

While Hoyer has been adamant about picking up the option for Ryan Ludwick’s contract in 2011, there are serious questions as to how well the veteran outfielder fits inside Petco Park.  Certainly, for what he was brought in to provide in 2010, Ludwick was a failure.

Brought over in a deadline-day trade which energized the Padres and delighted their fan base, Ludwick was expected to be a clutch hitting right-handed protector for Adrian Gonzalez in the lineup.  He came to San Diego leading the National League in batting with runners in scoring position.  He had torn up NL West pitching while with the Cardinals.  And Ludwick’s defensive metrics indicated he’d be able to handle right field at Petco Park.

Instead, Ryan hit .211/.301/.330 with San Diego.  His slugging percentage with the Padres was just four points higher than David Eckstein (gasp), “outslugging” Eck .330 to .326.  As protection for Adrian, Ludwick was about as useful as Saran Wrap in a convection oven.  Teams regularly walked Gonzalez to get to Ludwick as an escape hatch, and he struck out 57 times in 209 at-bats in San Diego.

While injury issues (he had just come off the disabled list in St. Louis before the trade), combined with the pressure to perform as a deadline acquisition may have conspired against Ludwick in the final two months of 2010, there are a number of red flags moving forward.  At age 32, Ryan’s experienced a year-to-year decline across the board for two consecutive seasons.  Will he rebound and re-energize his career in the toughest hitter’s park in the majors next year?

The Padres intend to find out, for good or ill.  One positive note is the team’s desire, expressed through Hoyer, to move Ludwick to left field in 2011.

4) Cabrera, Blanks busted.

cabrera kicking reynoldsEverth Cabrera entered 2010 as the everyday starting shortstop for the San Diego Padres, with Kyle Blanks entrenched as the cleanup batter and left fielder.  By year’s end, not only were both players non-contributors, but the future of both players in San Diego was thrown very much into question.

The Padres, who are loathe to criticize anyone in their organization, didn’t say anything negative about Everth Cabrera during the season.  In the last week, I’ve heard whispers from back channels that the team was concerned about Everth starting in spring training, when they felt he “fat catted” his way through the offseason and arrived with his legs out of shape.

Nonetheless, the team rode Cabrera throughout much of the early season, when he fielded well but couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag.  By midseason, Jerry Hairston was getting most of the playing time at shortstop and Cabrera was riding the pine.  Once Tejada was acquired, Cabrera was farmed out to Triple-A Portland.  He returned with even less confidence before, and became a major defensive liability down the stretch.

Now what do you do with Everth?  The Padres can’t survive with a 36-year-old Tejada at shortstop all season in 2011, and there are no ready replacements in the minor leagues.  For better or worse, San Diego may be stuck with Cabrera at shortstop in 2011 if they don’t find an external solution.

Blanks struck out at an alarming rate

Blanks, meanwhile, had a more star-crossed year than Cabrera.  This was the biggest “can’t miss” prospect in the Padres’ organization coming into 2010, and after a solid debut in 2009 (.250, 10 HR in 148 ABs, .869 OPS), the burly right-handed bat was expected to be the man batting behind Adrian all season.

For 33 games, Kyle Blanks was about as bad a hitter as was humanly possible this season.  He hit .157, struck out 46 times in 102 at-bats, and his slugging percentage dropped almost 200 points.  A below-average fielder and runner, Blanks had nothing to offer other than his impotent bat.

Just when the team was about to have to make a tough decision on the young man, Blanks suffered an elbow injury which wound up needing Tommy John surgery to repair.  Lost for the year, and a lost year for Blanks.  With Ludwick moving to left field in 2011 and right field not an option, Blanks only hope of getting playing time next year is for the Padres to trade Adrian Gonzalez and open up his natural position of first base.  But the way he hit in 2010, how can the Padres possibly commit to Blanks moving forward?

5) Lack of leadoff

gwynn buntingThis was the most consistent and glaring issue with the Padres’ offense all season long.  The team came into spring training without a legitimate leadoff hitter and never found one all season long.  Every player the Padres tried out at leadoff would fail miserably.  Several hit better in other spots in the lineup.  By year’s end, Bud Black had given up, just putting the random hot hand at the top of the order.

Padres #1 hitters (2010): .237 average, .306 OBP, 86 runs scored

Some of the various attempts at leadoff men:

Gwynn (as #1): .170/.262/.188

Cabrera (as #1): .148/.220/.167

Jerry Hairston (as #1): .243/.310/.340

Eckstein (as #1): .264/.330/.275

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By year’s end, Black plugged Will Venable into leadoff, and Venable responded with his hottest month of the year (September splits: .347/.372/.493; leadoff splits: .299/.341/.393).  However, with a career .325 OBP, Venable is not a long-term solution at the top of the order.  In fact, nobody on the Padres’ roster (unless Cabrera has a massive career rebirth) looks like a leadoff hitter.  This is a problem that, unresolved, will continue to haunt the Padres in 2011.

6) Stauffer came too late

The single biggest strategic mistake made by Bud Black and Jed Hoyer down the stretch was their reluctance to take the shackles off Tim Stauffer.  Starting the year as a mop-up man/long reliever/extra innings guy, Stauffer dominated every time he took the baseball in 2010.  In a spot start early in the season, Stauffer pitched five shutout frames and looked strong.

While Garland, Richard and Latos faltered down the stretch (throw Wade LeBlanc in there as well, who didn’t struggle as much as he lost favour with the coaching staff), Stauffer continued to rot in the back of the Padres’ bullpen.  Even when Black lifted Kevin Correia and LeBlanc from the rotation, he turned to a rookie out of the minors (Cory Luebke) over Stauffer.  It wasn’t until a stomach bug forced Mat Latos to have his start pushed back by a day that Stauffer got his chance to shine.

Hoyer admitted the mistake made by both he and Black, saying they wished they had promoted Stauffer to the rotation a month earlier.  If they had done so, San Diego would likely be prepping for the NLCS after beating the Reds in the first round of the playoffs.

7) Headley doesn’t hit enough for his position, and Venable’s a non-prospect

headley striking outBoth Chase Headley and Will Venable were key contributors to the Padres in 2010.  But both left a mixed bag to evaluate, with plenty of bad stuff mixed in with the good.

Chase Headley was a reliable defender and a lunchpail player for the Padres, playing in a team-high 161 games.  Unquestionably Headley wore down as the year went on, batting .196 in September.  Still, third base is a power position which demands production, and Headley’s offense so far has been more of a center fielder or shortstop then a third sacker.

With a slash line of .264/.327/.375 by year’s end and only 11 HR and 58 RBI, Headley’s offense is not enough to sustain him as a regular third baseman.  (Note: re-reading his slash line and counting stats, if I told you that was a middle of the road Garry Templeton season, you’d believe it, right?)  Entering his age 27 season, Headley has to dramatically improve for 2011 or the Padres will need to look elsewhere.

venable striking outSimilarly, while Will Venable did a lot of good things for the Padres and was arguably their hottest hitter down the stretch, that .347 September batting average didn’t make me forget about his .107 average in July and .229 average in August.

Venable’s going to be 28 years old next season.  He’s beyond being a “prospect” at this point.  Age 27-30 years are the prime of an MLB player’s career.  If the most San Diego can expect from Will is a .245 average with some pop and speed, that’s a fourth outfielder, not a long-term solution.

8) Black’s silent ship crept into harbor.

Bud Black should be concerned about how his offense has changed

This is much more of a “feel” criticism than one rooted in hard fact.  While I can certainly point at a number of highly questionable strategic decisions in the final week of the season (leading off Venable vs. LHP, starting Scott Hairston in games 161-162, not bringing in Joe Thatcher to face Blake DeWitt, not bunting with Yorvit on Sunday, etc), Bud Black’s overall job as manager in 2010 has to be praised.  He will garner many votes for Manager of the Year and just might win the award.

The strengths of Black’s managerial style, though, may not be suited to the pressure of a September playoff run.  Bud’s the same guy every day.  Always positive.  Always chipper. Never knocking his players publicly, rarely offering any insight privately, Buddy is an implacable, consistent, unwavering manager.

The problem is, sometimes the pressure of a playoff race can affect a team, and that’s when a manager needs to provide leadership.  All throughout the Padres’ 10-game losing streak to open the month of September, Black stayed positive.  He never acted as if there was a crisis to contend with.  For a stretch of five games (losses 7-10 of the streak and the first win) Black started to manage a bit tighter, using a quicker hook for his pitchers and making more substitutions on offense.  The moment the Padres seemed to right the ship, though, Bud went back to his old ways.

In must-win games, you can’t manage like it’s April.  You can’t leave in Scott Hairston for a “confidence building” at-bat when it’s his last AB of the season.  You can’t trust your pitcher to work out of his problems when there’s no tomorrow.

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Even as the Padres fell behind in the NL West, Black talked like a giddy schoolchild about the excellent position his team was in, and how everyone wants to be playing in these big games in September.  The tone was a complete disconnect with what was happening on the field.  And in the locker room, it was hard to find anyone to speak at all.

I think Bud needs to take some time this offseason to study his counterparts and how they react to a crisis.  In San Francisco, Bruce Bochy called out his starting pitchers when they were struggling, and suggested publicly that Pablo Sandoval and Tim Lincecum needed to get in better shape.  There are times when the manager has to take his leadership beyond closed doors.

Bud’s a great guy and a good manager, but he has presided over two of the worst collapses in franchise history in just four years.  Coughing up a 6 1/2 game lead in five weeks is a black mark on any manager’s resume, and combined with the final-week collapse of 2007, provides some grim homework for Black as he prepares for 2011.

Next time: 2011 Offseason Preview, Part One: Is Trading Adrian a Must?

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