In defense of the Padres defense

Some people, when visiting the lovely islands of Hawai’i, spend their days luxuriating beneath the sun along pristine white sand beaches. Others sit on the couch at their in-laws’ house and pore over The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011 for hours on end in the hope of gaining further insight into the game that, despite Bud Selig’s assertions to the contrary, Abner Doubleday never invented.

Very well. Let us speak no more of these so-called “beaches”…

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The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011 contains, among many fascinating items, detailed information regarding the defensive performance of individual players and teams. From this, we can learn that the San Diego Padres improved many aspects of their defense from 2009 to 2010, which may help explain their overall improvement. (There are other factors, but we will leave those for another day.)

Before discussing some of these improvements, let us examine areas in which the Padres have remained consistent on defense in recent years. Two that stand out are the ability of their infielders to defend against the bunt and the inability of their outfielders to throw out baserunners attempting to advance.

According to metrics devised by John Dewan, the Padres were the best in defending against the bunt in 2008 and have ranked among the top 10 in MLB in each of the past two years. This is perhaps not surprising given that they have, in Adrian Gonzalez, a first baseman who possesses a strong arm and the willingness to use it.

They also had Kevin Kouzmanoff (who excelled at coming in on balls) at third base in 2008 and 2009, and Chase Headley (who, as we will see, excelled at everything) there last year. Having Greg Maddux on the mound every fifth day in ’08 couldn’t have hurt.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Padres have ranked last or second to last at keeping baserunners from advancing in each of the past three seasons:

         2008 2009 2010
XB/Opps* .509 .551 .518
Rank       29   30   29

*This is the number of extra bases taken by opposing baserunners divided by the number of opportunities to do so.

To provide context, the best teams typically (read “from 2008 to 2010” throughout this article) allow 39 to 40 percent of opposing baserunners to advance; the worst allow 51 to 55 percent. With the presence of such weak-armed outfielders as Brian Giles and Tony Gwynn Jr. in recent years, it should come as no great shock that the Padres have struggled in this area.

The good news, if you choose to view it as such, is that Padres outfielders have had fewer opportunities to keep runners from advancing than most teams:

       2008 2009 2010
Padres  424  428  388
Min     379  360  332
Max     549  532  515
Rank     19   17*  23

*Denotes tie

* * *

Those areas of stability notwithstanding, the Padres made significant advances in 2010, almost all of which came on the infield. Here are San Diego’s defensive runs saved by position for 2009 and 2010, presented in descending order of improvement from the first year to the second:

   2009 2010 Dif
2B  -20    5 +25
3B    1   21 +20
SS  -14    2 +16
P     5   10  +5
RF   -4    1  +5
C     2    1  -1
LF    0   -1  -1
CF   17   14  -3
1B   12    0 -12
Tot  -1   53 +54

Curiously, the three biggest positive changes came about in radically different circumstances. David Eckstein was the Padres’ primary second baseman both years, and yet, the position went from being a glaring weakness to a moderate strength without any change in personnel. As is the case with other aspects of player performance, defense is subject to yearly fluctuations.

At third base, the Padres replaced Kouzmanoff (who received some support for the National League Gold Glove on the basis of his extraordinarily low error total) with Headley, who in his first year as a starter at the position in the big leagues made more plays out of zone than any other NL third baseman, including Ryan Zimmerman.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

At shortstop, the Padres saw improvement despite a lack of stability at the position. Where Everth Cabrera handled the bulk of the duty as a rookie in 2009, a triumvirate of Cabrera, Jerry Hairston Jr. and Miguel Tejada split it evenly in 2010. They combined to provide excellent defense, with Hairston being the best of the lot and Cabrera the worst.

* * *

Another way to look at the Padres’ defense is through the lens of plus/minus, another fielding system invented by Dewan. Note again the change in middle infield play:

    2009 2010 Dif
MI   -38  +10 +48
CI   +18  +23  +5
OF   +31  +23  -8
Tot  +11  +56 +45
Rnk   12    3   -

According to this metric, San Diego’s defensive improvement came almost entirely from the middle infield, with marginal gains on the corner infield nearly offsetting marginal losses in the outfield. This jibes reasonably well with the aforementioned runs saved numbers.

One more set of numbers supports the theory of improved infield play, and this is double plays. Despite being presented with fewer opportunities in 2010, the Padres turned more twin killings than in the previous year:

     2009 2010   Dif
Opps  318  295   -23
GDP   117  120    +3
Pct  .368 .407 +.039
Rnk    26   13     -

The Padres weren’t great at turning the double play in 2010, but middle of the pack represents dramatic improvement over bottom five. The best teams typically convert 49 to 52 percent of their opportunities, while the worst convert 37 to 41 percent. Only three teams in MLB exhibited greater improvement in terms of percentage from 2009 to 2010. Here are the top five:

          2009 2010   Dif
Rockies   .359 .442 +.083
Blue Jays .420 .492 +.072
Yankees   .386 .443 +.057
Padres    .368 .407 +.039
White Sox .414 .453 +.039

For grins, here are the five worst “descenders” (it was a rough year for the American League West):

         2009 2010   Dif
Angels   .492 .387 -.105
Royals   .413 .332 -.081
Rangers  .478 .398 -.080
Pirates  .409 .336 -.073
Mariners .451 .397 -.054

The Rangers reached the World Series, so who knows. Then again, when most folks think about the Rangers, infield defense probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind.

As for the Padres, they infamously fell just short of the playoffs. There were many reasons for this, but defense—particularly on the infield—wasn’t one of them.

References & Resources
This article was inspired by The Hardball Times Baseball Annual 2011, without which I would have been condemned to a week of luxuriating beneath the sun along pristine white sand beaches. The Fielding Bible FAQ about Plus/Minus and Runs Saved and FanGraphs provided useful information on the defensive metrics cited herein.

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Red Sox Talk
12 years ago

Thanks for this article, Geoff. I think everyone tends to dismiss the Pads’ excellent run prevention by blaming PETCO, but defense was undoubtedly a huge factor as well.

12 years ago

These numbers are actually quite amazing, when you consider how often you hear about how important it is for a DP combination to be familiar with one another.  Yet with SS a position of total INstability, the DP numbers went up.  That this would happen with one of the SS considered a defensive liability (Tejada) only increases the improbability of it.

Geoff Young
12 years ago

@Red Sox Talk: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. I knew the Padres played good defense in 2010, but I didn’t realize just how good until running numbers.

@the_slasher14: Yeah, both 2B and SS shocked me. Standing pat to address one glaring weakness and slapping duct tape on the other doesn’t seem like a recipe for dramatic improvement, but there it was.