San Diego Padres go on muddling in the middle

SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 19: Yangervis Solarte
SAN DIEGO, CA - AUGUST 19: Yangervis Solarte /

It’s no surprise that the San Diego Padres aren’t contending this season. Unfortunately however, they aren’t doing a very good job of tanking either.

The number 76 (as in wins) has been bandied about this week on Twitter and in at least one podcast and symbolizes the Padres’ perennial problem of muddling around in the middle of the standings. Nothing good comes of 76 wins; no trips to the playoffs and no high draft picks either.

This tweet by @ChangeThePadres puts the problem succinctly, “Not sure what’s worse: repeatedly winning 76 games when the front office is convinced you’ll compete, or winning 76 when TRYING to lose 100.” This week on their “Make the Padres Great Again” podcast, Craig Elsten and John Gennaro also talked about win totals around 76 in their discussion of lost opportunities.

The last time the Padres had more wins than losses occurred in 2010 (90-72, .556 winning percentage). Adrian Gonzalez played first base for the Padres (.298/3.93/.551, 31 home runs, 101 RBI). Since then, the win totals have been 71, 76, 76, 77, 74, 68, all mediocre results. Payroll has had little effect on results either, from a low of $43 million (40 man roster) in 2010 to a high of $110 million in 2015.

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In June Rob Arthur wrote an article for ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight entitled “Baseball’s Mediocre Teams are Disappearing.” Three months into the season he still assumed the Padres would wind up in the cellar: “MLB’s worst teams have committed wholly to rebuilding, at the cost of any shred of competitiveness. While the Padres’ management doesn’t dare speak the word, executive chairman Ron Fowler said last year that they aimed ‘to get to .500 in hopefully’ by 2018.”

So far that commitment to rebuilding has failed, and the Padres have indeed been mediocre. Even if losses start piling up it will be difficult if not impossible to catch up with the Phillies (43 wins) and the White Sox (46 wins).

If the draft took place today, the Padres would pick after the Phillies, White Sox, Giants, A’s, Mets and Reds. Why does that matter? Sports Illustrated’s Jay Jaffe has analyzed the correlation between top ranked draft picks and the career WAR of corresponding players from 1998 to 2017 and found a dramatic tailing off of performance after the first two picks: 1: 14.7 WAR, 2: 12.0, 3: 5.2, 4: 3.9 with spikes at 5 to 11.0 (thanks to players like Ryan Braun and Buster Posey) and 7 to 10.5 (Clayton Kershaw and Troy Tulowitzki).

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Obviously, talent can be found beyond the top two or three picks. The Padres selected Cy Young award winner Jake Peavy in the 15th round of the 1999 draft at 472 overall. Furthermore, the Padres’ success with high draft picks has been dubious at best, with Matt Bush perhaps being the poster child for those failures.

The new regime headed by general manager A.J. Preller has yet to see the fruits of his efforts in the draft beyond relief pitcher Phil Maton. After all, he has only been on the job since August 5, 2014, although it seems longer since his tenure has been somewhat tumultuous so far. The success of baseball teams also depends upon other variables like the development of draft picks, trades, coaching staff, and, of course, blind luck.

Next: A season of surprises

In the case of the 2017 Padres, the players have performed above expectations, which should be a cause for celebration.  However, their performance cannot detract from the fact that muddling along in the middle at 76 games rarely leads to any kind of success.