For those of you who don’t know, I’m a San Diego transplant living in Arizona. For that reason, vacations are often back to America’s Finest City – the true southern California vacation destination; San Diego. Such was the case this weekend, and the vacation was rare in the fact that it exceeded expectations. Often, vacations don’t live up to what we hope they will be. Whether it be the stress of organizing them, trying to fit everything in, or the worry of money and things back home, it’s not common to actually have a trip exceed your expectations. But this one did. It didn’t bypass the normal vacation status quo for anything baseball related, but we did attend a Padres game, and at that game, I had a revelation. Watching my son, I was suddenly able to see something every child goes through and equate it to the Padres struggles. Execution.
Out on the grassy hill of the Park in the Park, under the shadow of Tony Gwynn‘s statue, I watched my son stand with assistance time and time again. It was just a beautiful day at a new park for him, and he just wanted to play. As he did so, my wife and I would help him stand and help him walk, but every now and then we would let go. We would let him stand there for seconds (maybe milliseconds) on his own, teetering under his the weight of tiny legs and not sure if he could maintain the glory of balance and standing without assistance. Of course, as soon as he realized he was standing on his own he would flop down on his butt. He could stand if he really wanted to. He has the ability, the talent. But he doesn’t have the confidence to execute it on his own.
This is the story with the 2012 Padres and perhaps every other underachieving Padres club. This team, with its injuries and its middle infield struggles, was not going to blow anyone away during the season, but they have talent. They should be better than last year’s team. Unfortunately, whether it be a mental issue or otherwise, the team can’t seem to live up to its talents.
Take Cameron Maybin for example. Maybin has the skills to hit .270/.380/.410 and steal upwards of 60 bases in a season. He may not slug 20 home runs, but he could easily hit 10-15. He should be able to do this while playing Gold Glove defense in centerfield, tracking down fly-balls like a heat-seaking missile. His raw abilities are what drew the Padres to him. They are what drove the club to an early contract extension. And they are what frustrate the fans the most as we watch him striking out far too often, committing too many errors, and simply not showing any power. To date, Maybin is hitting .223/.310/.314 with one home run. He has stolen 14 bases, but he’s not quite on pass to match or break the 40 mark he set last year (Assuming he plays about 140 games. He played 137 last year.) Even more painful than the offensive woes, Maybin has struggled mightily on defense. He has committed three errors already this season. He committed five all of last year. For the advanced metric-junkies, he currently has a UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) of -1.5. Last year it was 9.5.
Yet Maybin is not the only example of those failing to live up to their abilities. Nick Hundleyis a special player.
He’s not special because of raw talent. He can’t blaze down the line. He doesn’t throw runners out at an un-Godly pace. He doesn’t send moon shots bounding off the Western Metal Supply Company building in left field. Instead he studies the game. He’s a student and always learning. He’s adjusted his style of offensive play to fit the unique standards of Petco Park. In each of his years leading up to 2012, Hundley has improved his OPS+ (76 in ’08, 97 in ’09, 102 in ’10 – his first year above league average in OPS, and 133 last season). This year he’s sitting at a measly 39 OPS+. What exactly does that mean? Simply put, Hundley’s on-base percentage and his slugging percentage combined (his OPS) are 39% of league average – or 61% below league average, however you’d like to view it.
Last year’s savior, Jesus Guzman, has found his stroke a bit of late, but he too has fell flat when given opportunity and time. Unlike last year, Guzman is not scorching the ball at home. He is hitting just .236 at home this season verse .262 on the road. Guzman has proven he has the talent to hit for average and power. He may not be the type to rattle off 25 homers in a single year, but he could hit his fair share while smacking upwards of 30 doubles. But that’s not happening. In 2012, Guzman is striking out 5% more often on average than he did last year – 20.8% of the time verse 15.9% in 2011. Guzman is not going to be a Gold Glove defender at any position he plays, but his offense should keep him in the game. Yet, this year that’s not happening.
I could go down the line with under-performing players, but I think you get the point. Games aren’t won on paper. Players, those whom early contract extensions are given and those vying for similar deals, don’t simply win games because their names are penciled into a lineup card. They have to execute. They have to take their talents, their natural abilities, and their learned skills, and apply them to the real world. Standing 60 feet, six inches from the pitcher, the test of player’s ability to execute comes down to milliseconds as the ball rockets toward home plate. In the field, with the game hanging on a split second route choice, a player’s ability to turn talent into execution is on display.
This is what the 2012 Padres lack. Like my son, holding himself up in the freedom of stance for an ever-fleeting moment before crashing back to earth, the ability is there. But also like my son, who has yet to find the confidence in himself to sit back up after that startling fall to earth, plant both feet into the ground, and stand brave once more, the execution is lacking. Fortunately for my son he has an excuse; he’s one. What’s the Padres’ excuse?