The Padres’ Quantity Over Quality Quandary

Will the construction of the pitching staff be their undoing?

The 2023 San Diego Padres were as enigmatic as any team in recent memory. The sixth-most runs and fifth-most stolen bases in the National League? Tied with Milwaukee for the best staff ERA in Major League Baseball? A +104 run differential that trailed only Atlanta & the Dodgers in the NL? Surely that’s a playoff-caliber squad. And yet… they were not.

Instead, those Padres finished third in their division and sixth in the NL Wild Card race. It took a hot run at the tail end of the year in order to even reach 82-80. They had the statistical chops to grab a playoff berth but ended up wholly unlucky in their pursuit.

The 2024 iteration of the San Diego Padres is not quite as much of a mystery.


One Step Forward, Etc. 


This is somewhat anecdotal, but it’s been a trend in recent San Diego history to make a bit of a surprise run, add to that roster, and fail to take the next step forward. The Padres surprised everyone with a run in 2020 (for whatever that means), only to fail to make the playoffs again in 2021.

The Padres then turned around and added Juan Soto, Josh Hader, and Josh Bell during the 2022 season and won a wild card spot. They reached the NLCS, lost in five to Philadelphia, and then couldn’t get back into the dance last year.

This isn’t to dismiss their efforts. The empowerment of A.J. Preller to add at the high-level rate he did — with the blessing of late owner Peter Seidler — is admirable, especially in today’s financial landscape within the sport. However, their horrid luck compounded with the passing of Seidler led to a scaling back of finances. That meant the departure of Soto & sixty percent of their 2023 rotation. Ultimately, this left the Padres in the situation in which they now find themselves.


Roster Imbalance


That situation illustrates a roster of imbalance, in terms of representation & performance. The Padres have scored the second-most runs in the league, behind only the Dodgers. They have a top 10 ISO, reach base at a top 10 clip, and don’t strike out a ton. Their recent acquisition of Luis Arraez was notable, sure. It lengthens the lineup and gives them a true leadoff option. That said, it doesn’t fix the central problem with this year’s group: their approach to pitching.

San Diego lost Blake Snell, Seth Lugo, and Michael Wacha in free agency. Swingman Nick Martinez and closer Josh Hader also walked. They traded Steven Wilson and Scott Barlow over the course of the winter. Down seven-plus arms — given the smattering of fringe arms that are also on new teams — it makes sense that they would apply a volume approach to replacing them. Recreating them in the aggregate, if you will.

As part of the Juan Soto trade, the Padres brought back Michael King, Randy VásquezJhony Brito, and Drew Thorpe. Thorpe was subsequently shipped out as part of the Dylan Cease trade. That’s four. They also acquired Enyel De Los Santos from Cleveland, Jeremiah Estrada from the Cubs, and Stephen Kolek from Seattle in the Rule 5 draft. Yuki Matsui & Wandy Peralta were brought in via free agency. Jackson Wolf Logan Gillaspie were waiver claims. We can throw Sean Reynolds in there, having been acquired as part of the Garrett Cooper trade last year.

That’s a dozen arms projected to be on the roster at some point, with many of them regulars. That’s in addition to Matt Waldron and his knuckleball becoming a feature in the rotation. Pitchers comprise 22 players on the 40-man roster.

It’s an impressive compilation, especially given the financial constraints that the team demonstrated throughout the winter. Unfortunately for the Padres, a volume approach that relies heavily on savings, rather than quality, is not working out in the way that a team still aiming to contend might’ve hoped, especially when you’re hoping for stability above all from your staff.


Quantity Over Quality


As a collective staff, the Padres sit 21st in ERA (4.28), 19th in K% (21.9), and 13th in BB% (8.4). They’re allowing the fourth-most hard contact in the league (32.7 HardHit%). The starting pitching largely reflects the total body of work. They’re 23rd in ERA (4.49), 17th in K% (22.1), and 19th in walk rate (8.7). With a HardHit% sitting fifth-highest (32.9 percent), it’s an uninspiring group.

The relief corps provides at least a slight improvement from the broad pitching context. The ‘pen ranks sixth in usage (136 innings). They’re 17th in ERA (3.97), 23rd in K% (21.6), and sixth in BB% (8.1). They’re giving up the seventh-most hard contact among reliever groups, however, at 32.7 percent.

For the San Diego Padres, perhaps the most notable problem lies in those arms that replaced the departed, especially when you’re hoping for innings.

Waldron, in particular, has struggled. He’s made seven starts, pitched to an ERA near six, and ranks 25th in HardHit% (33.6) among 105 pitchers with at least 30 innings pitched. Worse yet, his knuckleball isn’t playing in the way that you’d hope. It represents only the third-highest rate of swings against, despite the fact that he’s throwing it 35.1 percent of the time. Instead, hitters are primarily swinging at his four-seamer. He’s surrendering hard contact on that pitch an absurd 46.2 percent of the time.

The other newcomer to the group is Michael King. His total body of work looks… fine. Through seven starts of his own, King features a 4.29 ERA and 23.4 K%. His issue has been sustaining consistency. While he’s averaging six innings per start, he has three starts of four innings or less in those seven. Command has been his enemy in those starts; he’s walked at least three hitters in three starts and had one where he walked seven.

Vásquez is the only other safety net for the rotation at present. He has allowed four runs in each of his first two starts. The first wasn’t so much on him, given that only one was earned. However, he only managed 2.2 innings in his second, allowing six hits and a pair of walks. With Musgrove set to hit the 15-day IL, Vásquez will at least have a chance to expand the sample over the next couple of weeks.

The bullpen picture doesn’t offer a ton more stability, either. Peralta is allowing hard contact at an even 40 percent clip. Brito isn’t giving up quality contact, but he is giving up a lot of it overall, at 87 percent across 18 innings.

San Diego’s ‘pen logged 577.1 innings in 2023. That ranked 21st in the league. They got the ninth-most innings out of their starting pitchers (863.2). Such a distribution is an indication that your starting pitchers are stable, leaving a much smaller burden on the relief corps. The way in which the organization chose to approach building out its staff for ’24 was one which left a great deal of uncertainty in matters of stability on the bump.


Community, Identity, Stability


The main thought here is discussing the idea of stability within the San Diego Padres pitching staff. You thought you were getting all the way through this without an obscure pop culture reference? Brave New World is my favorite dystopian novel of all time. It has evolved into perhaps the most topical work in the genre. Therein, Aldous Huxley emphasizes the concept of stability. Sacrifices are made all over society in order to establish & maintain stability within the World State. Most notably, identity is a thing of the past.

In a way, the San Diego Padres represent an antithesis of the novel, in that they made significant and long-lasting sacrifices, but managed to completely unravel their own stability in the process. In causing chaos within their own ranks, they’ve also unraveled any sense of an identity. We’re a week away from the mid-point of May and have no idea what this team is.

It’s probably unreasonable to think the team could have held onto any of Snell, Wacha, Lugo, or Hader. Each played himself into a significant contract (in dollars more than term). It wasn’t something that worked for San Diego given their desire to work under a certain salary threshold. But — especially in the case of Wacha & Lugo — they likely made a sacrifice more notable than had been previously thought.

Because what this team is lacking right now is stability. Dylan Cease has been very good. Enyel De Los Santos has been very good. Yuki Matsui has been decent enough, in addition to holdovers Robert Suarez & (more recently) Yu Darvish. Outside of that, it’s a massive amount of variance. Walks, hard contact, bad luck. These are things you can mitigate with a steady, even if unspectacular rotation. The Padres’ volume approach isn’t affording them such steadiness.

An organization can overcome key losses in an offseason. But when a team adds a baker’s dozen arms to the mix, you’d hope the hit rate would be a bit higher for a prospective contender. Because the San Diego Padres, at present, fancy themselves contenders in a deep National League.

And this isn’t to say it’s all been a failure or that A.J. Preller won’t do something spectacular to address it, but the process thus far has been concerning. Throw it at a wall and see what sticks is a fine strategy for a bullpen when you’ve got a few established arms. It’s hardly an acceptable practice when you’re discussing a rotation, let alone a pitching staff at large. Allowing the likes of Matt Waldron et al to hold down a rotation spot while attempting to emerge from a deep NL playoff picture is the type of thing that works in contrast to any real aspirations.

Stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. Mustapha Mond’s thought in Brave New World might ring true in the World State, but given the imbalance of the Padres’ current setup, stability sounds like a pretty spectacular thing.

Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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