Friday, May 29, 2015

Next Up: The San Diego Padres

Sorry, a day late. But honestly, are you awake for these west coast games that don't start until 10 PM Eastern time? I had a job for which I traveled a lot, and trips to the west coast could be brutal. Sometimes I boarded a plane in the east around 6 AM (work backwards to figure out when I had to wake up), land on the west coast at 1:30 PM or so Pacific time, go to a couple meetings, and then have a dinner that didn't start until about 7 PM Pacific, by which time I'd been awake (other than any sleep time on the plane) for like 19 straight hours or so.

The Pirates faced something similar. They had an afternoon game at PNC Park on Wednesday followed by a night game in San Diego on Thursday. Granted, they flew on a charter flight (I almost always had to change planes somewhere) and they stay at really nice hotels. Still, let's think about the games in terms of the Eastern time zone. It was a 12:35 PM start on Wednesday, so let's assume the players had to get to the ballpark by about 9:00 AM. That means they probably got their wake-up call no later than 7:00 or 7:30. The game took 2:38, so they shower, change, get on the bus and let's say the plane is wheels up at 4:30 PM. There aren't any direct flights from Pittsburgh to San Diego, but a direct to Los Angeles takes 5:13. So let's assume the Pirates' charter, barring any air traffic control delays, is on the ground in San Diego by 9:30-10:00 PM. (Flight times for domestic carriers are always inflated, so that delays don't mess with the airline's on-time performance.) That has them in their rooms, bags unpacked, by 10:00-10:30. (The airport in San Diego is very conveniently located, near downtown.) But that's only 7:00-7:30 PM Pacific, and they haven't had a real meal, so they grab dinner, and even if it's room service, they're not in bed until midnight or so our time. The game Thursday started at 7:05 PM, so the players probably started arriving at Petco Park, I don't know, 1:00 or 2:00? But hang on--they landed Wednesday on East Coast time. How many of them woke up at 5:00 AM Thursday (8:00 AM Eastern), with the first pitch over 14 hours away? I listened to the radio broadcast of the game Wednesday, and radio commentator Steve Blass remarked that the first day of a West Coast trip always felt two days long. I don't have time to dig it up right now, but I'm pretty sure that teams traveling east-to-west with games on consecutive days have a lower-than-expected won-lost record in the first game in the Pacific time zone. Which, of course, the Pirates didn't, winning 11-5. 

Anyway, there are three more games with the Padres, followed by three in San Francisco, so let's look more closely at San Diego. 

How Are They Doing Lately? The Padres led the offseason in headlines, as new general manager A.J. Preller overhauled the club. He traded for an entirely new outfield (Justin Upton from the Braves, Wil Myers from the Rays, and Matt Kemp from the Dodgers), a new catcher (Derek Norris from the A's), a new third baseman (Will Middlebrooks from the Red Sox), and a new closer (Craig Kimbrel from the Braves) and signed the third-best starting pitcher on the free agent market, James Shields (to a reasonable-by-contemporary-standards four year, $75 million deal with a club option to make it five years and $89 million). They were seen as a strong candidate for the postseason, with some picking them to topple the Dodgers atop the division. I envisioned a wild-card entry.

It hasn't worked out that way, at least not yet. They're currently 23-26, in third place, 6.5 games behind the Dodgers and 6.0 behind the Giants. They trail the Giants, Mets, Cubs, Pirates, and Braves in the wild card standings. Over the past 30 days they're 12-15, tied with the Brewers and the Mets for the fifth-worst record in the league.

What's Going Right? Not a whole lot of late. The bullpen's been okay, with a seventh-best-in-the-league 3.60 ERA over the past 30 days, and they're one of only three teams with only one blown save over that period. But they're tied for the seventh-fewest saves and the fifth-fewest holds because they haven't been handed leads.

What's Going Wrong? They've gotten inconsistent starting pitching (4.68 ERA, third-highest in the league) and their offense has the third-lowest batting average (.233), second-lowest on-base percentage (.293), and second-lowest slugging percentage (.340). Bad starting pitching and no offense isn't a formula for success. The Padres' defense is awful; depending on the methodology, either the Padres or the Phillies are the worst-fielding team in the league, and it's not close. 

Who's Hot? While Kimbrel's had a tough go of it of late, the team's other three top relievers by innings pitched over the past 30 days, Brandon Mauer, Kevin Quackenbush, and Dale Thayer, have combined for a 2.11 ERA over 38.1 innings. Shields has a 4-0 record over the past 30 days, but that's because the offense has given him a lot of run support, as his ERA over the stretch is 4.60. By contrast, the offense has scored for starters Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross, who are a combined 2-6 over the past 30 days despite ERAs of 3.23 and 3.19, respectively. On offense, Upton (.320/.398/.540 slash line over the past 30 days) has lived up to the hype, and Myers (.300/.404/.500) has been good too. Unfortunately, Myers is on the disabled list, though his understudy, Will Venable (.323/.405/.431) has performed well. 

Who's Not? Over the past 30 days, Kimbrel has a 7.45 ERA, but that shrinks to 3.24 without two terrible outings against Houston (three runs in a third of an inning) and Arizona (two runs in an inning). That 3.24 ERA is still a far cry from his career total of 1.43 entering the season, but he's struck out 16 over the past 9.2 innings, so he hasn't fallen off a cliff. After Shields, Cashner, and Ross, the rotation's been a mess, with a combined 6.48 ERA. Kemp's been terrible (.181/.216/.219 slash line over the past 30 days), shortstop Alexi Amarista has been worse (.169/.236/.200), and the replacement for injured first baseman Yonder Alonso, Yangervis Solarte, is hitting .232/.276/.303 over the past 30 days.

What's the Outlook? The Padres have, on paper, three strong starting pitchers, a dominant closer, a star-studded outfield and...well, the weather in San Diego's great and the ballpark's really nice. It's hard to imagine Kemp staying this awful, and Myers and Alonso should provide a boost when they return. The team could still snatch a wild-card spot. 

In the series, the Pirates face Shields and Ross, two of San Diego's best pitchers, over the next two games, so it'd surprise me if their seven-game winning streak gets to ten by the time they leave San Diego. Still, if they can take two of the next three, they'd be 27-23, a .540 winning percentage that's comparable to the .543 won-lost they compiled last season. But then they head up the coast for three against the red-hot Giants, who, along with the Nationals, are the only team in the majors to have won 20 games over the past 30 days. 

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