A.J. Preller burst onto the baseball scene last year with a flurry of trades and moves, with flare and smarts, even dubbed a rock star by Matt Kemp. However, the moves didn’t all work out, people got hurt or under performed and the suddenly relevant Padres of the hot stove league won three less games than the year before in the real league, fading off into the land of irrelevance with that girl who sang Friday, Herman Cain and Kris Humphries. So, big names that fill up the marquee didn’t work. What went wrong and how has A.J. the rock star addressed it? By looking at the defense and trying to find the right players instead of the right names.
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The old adage defense wins championships has been on display the last two years as the Kansas City Royals have represented the American League in the World Series two years in a row with widely recognized superior defense. The Royals are a small market team with smaller numbers than the Padres in both attendance and revenues, drawing an average of 6400 fans per game less than the Padres over the last two years. Even last year, with the Royals on their way to their second straight October, the Padres outdrew them by a quarter million fans.
Obviously it’s not money that is holding the Friars back, as evidenced by the spending of A.J. Preller last year in free agency and the expected Padres spending spree this coming July in the international market. I doubt there will be a Kanye-esque gofundme account for the Padres any time soon. They have the means and are willing to spend, they just need to spend on the right players. Last year they spent big time money and prospects to bring Matt Kemp, Craig Kimbrel, James Shields and Justin Upton over. The Padres defense was already bad, ranking next to last in 2014 in fielding percentage and 23rd in UZR (ultimate zone rating, a measure of range and fielding ability compared to an average player). These acquisitions and others made it worse in 2015 as the team UZR fell from -4.8 to -5.9, they committed more errors and gave up 22 more unearned runs than in 2014. All while winning three less games. At the end of the day all the stats in the world are nice, but wins get you to the postseason and October glory.
So, if it’s not revenue, then let’s look at the defense and recognize that A.J. Preller has attempted to ensure the pitchers are backed up a little better this year. In 2015 the San Diego Padres led the National League in unearned runs, giving up 76 of them, which was a dozen more than the next closest NL team. Multiple metrics will tell you the Padres defense was horrid last year and your own eyes would substantiate that if they had seen Matt Kemp impersonating Fernando Valenzuela in right field. 76 unearned runs. Some of their closest competitors in the race to the bottom were the Atlanta Braves (62 unearned) and the Philadelphia Phillies (60). So the Pads managed 7 more wins than the Braves and 11 more than the Phillies while performing measurably worse on D. Can you imagine if they had been somewhat less terrible?
Well, that apparently is just what A.J. Preller was doing this winter when he replaced the diminutive Alexi Amarista, whom the Padres list at 5’7” and 150 pounds, at shortstop with Alexei Ramirez, who happens to be 6’3”, much more Jeter-esque in stature. While UZR in 2015 favored Amarista heavily, -1.5 to -6.4, it was a smaller sample size as Amarista played less than half as many innings as Ramirez. In the five years prior Ramirez had posted an average UZR of nearly 7. So, Ramirez has either slowed considerably and is on the downward side of his career or last year was an aberration. Either way Amarista has never posted a UZR of greater than 0.5 as a SS. Amarista also committed 12 errors in 671.1 innings compared to only 16 errors for Ramirez in over 1300 innings. If this swap were in play for last year we can imagine that this would have led to a savings of 4 or more errors.
Now, Ramirez could very well be on the downside of his defensive career, he is nearly 35. Edgar Renteria saw a marked downturn in his UZR at 29. Miguel Tejada at 35. Even Ozzie Smith was basically done at 39. But, Preller didn’t sign him for a long term investment, he just needs one year of not terrible defense, while paying less than the average MLB salary for it. There is a chance Ramirez has no range left, and his UZR of 2015 portends a concrete footed quagmire at short, but he’s a good buy low investment that should work just fine for the Padres. Even if UZR predicts he can’t and won’t get to all the grounders Cashner and Shields induce, he won’t boot nearly as many as Padres shortstops did last year, which will be an upgrade in itself.
In 2014 the Padres committed two less errors, had 22 less unearned runs and three more wins than the Padres of 2015. The Padres surrendered 76 unearned runs on 92 errors in 2015. One could assume that this simple switch would have led to a savings of at least 3 unearned runs, and those are wins. How many unearned runs did the world champion Royals surrender, you ask? 40.