The 2016 Padres Starting Pitchers – The Big 3 have a 4th
By Hugh Rothman
By Hugh Rothman
Petco Park, the Padres current shiny home field opened in 2004. The place was a jewel, especially when compared to their previous home park, Qualcomm Stadium, which was previously the only home the organization had ever known. Qualcomm Stadium was a football stadium which graced the Padres with a shoehorned baseball diamond for home games. The sight lines were not designed for baseball and thus were quite substandard. The view was nonexistent which was beneficial, since the only thing to see beyond the stadium was the massive parking lot, which surrounded the stadium on all sides. The place had all the charm of Ted Cruz. Petco Park however, was a revelation! Tall downtown buildings glistened beyond the outfield fences. The old Western Metal Supply building had been left intact and was incorporated into left field, which was just one of the many charming aspects of the new ballpark. Stunning views of the bay and the Coronado Bridge were commonplace throughout the many nooks and crannies of the gorgeous structure.
Petco Park also has another cool feature: It is one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in all of baseball history. No other ballpark in baseball history, whether modern or olden times has suppressed offense as much as Petco Park. The park dimensions are not overly huge like in the old Astrodome, nor is the foul ball area massive, like in Oakland Alameda coliseum. There are no wind-tunnel effects keeping the ball in the ballpark, like there are sometimes in Wrigley Field when the wind is blowing in. What makes Petco Park unique is the heavy, salty air that has the effect of turning deep fly balls into long outs. Phil Nevin can attest to this, which he famously did, glaring at then General Manager Kevin Towers when one of Nevin’s many long fly balls hit in his home park landed in the glove of a waiting outfielder rather than over the fence.
So, over the years, since the Padres have moved into their new digs, the team’s hitting has always looked rather anemic, while the pitching has generally appeared solid. Fly ball pitchers especially love pitching at Petco Park since many more of those fly balls stay in the park for outs, rather than over the fence for homers. In general, Padre hitters appear less valuable, while their pitchers appear more valuable than they are in reality.
2014: Looking Good
The 2014 exacerbated this viewpoint more than ever. The hitters had a historically awful season, but the pitching staff contributed championship-level caliber performances. Petco Park depressed offense by 10% overall that season, so this dichotomy was even more pronounced. However, pure numbers are still numbers and the Padre pitchers gave up just 577 runs in 2014. That is an excellent result; it was 2nd in the league and would have been enough to propel the Padres to a championship if their hitting had been just ok. Tyson Ross in particular had an excellent season, pitching 195 innings with an ERA of 2.81, winning 13 games. Andrew Cashner also pitched well when healthy, contributing 123 innings of 2.55 ERA performance. These are ace-worthy pitching efforts, from not just one but two of the team’s starting pitchers. But there was more: Ian Kennedy led the team with 201 innings and the innings were of decent quality, resulting in a 3.63 ERA. Jesse Hahn and Odrisamer Despaigne also chipped in some solid work, keeping their ERAs in the 3.00s. Even Eric Stults, a Jamie Moyer wannabe, wasn’t terrible and was third on the team with 176 innings.
When A.J. Preller came to town, the pitching staff looked pretty decent. Tyson Ross and Andrew Cashner were still around, and when Preller managed to land James “Big Game” Shields to the mix, things looked very promising indeed for 2015. Alas, the 2015 pitching staff surrendered 731 runs, a full 154 runs more than the team had surrendered in 2014. This development more than offset the improvement the team made in the offense in 2015, resulting in an even worse record for the team in 2015 than in 2014.
So… what in the hell happened???
2015: Homers, Homers, Homers
Well, one thing to note is that the configuration of Petco Park itself changed in 2015. A new section sponsored by one of San Diego’s ubiquitous microbrew companies was added behind the right field wall which meant that the right field fence was moved in by about 10 feet. The left field wall was also moved in, but not as much as right field had been. These changes made Petco Park not quite as much of a pitcher’s park as it had been. The park reduced offense by about 8% in 2015 rather than the 10% it had in previous seasons.
In conjunction with the park changes, the individual pitchers had very different years than they had in 2014. Take Tyson Ross for example. Actually… just kidding! Tyson Ross’s 2015 was very similar to his 2014. His ERA was slightly higher at 3.26, but the innings pitched was nearly identical, and Ross surrendered only 9 homers in 2015. Ross at this point was clearly the ace of the staff.
How about James “Big Game” Shields? Ah… here is where things start to unravel. Shields, coming off a solid year with Kansas City, picked 2015 to give up a career high 81 walks and a league leading 33 homers. Um, guess what? That’s not a good combination for success. Shields did (and still does) provide amazing durability (he has pitched over 200 innings for 9 straight years) and in 2015 pitched like a super-durable inning eating 3rd starter. Unfortunately, he is getting paid like an ace. One would expect better numbers in Petco Park from Shields even with the changed park configuration, considering he is an extreme fly ball pitcher. Nevertheless, Shields does help a team, considering he pitches about 1/7 of a team’s innings every season, and most of the time, those innings aren’t disastrous. But, Shields’ homerific ways didn’t help the team as much as expected.
Next up: Andrew Cashner. Cashner was acquired from the Chicago Cubs for Anthony Rizzo, who has gone on to become a big star. Cashner has certainly had his moments of brilliance, especially in 2014, but he is more high maintenance than your standard hot college girlfriend. There is always some ouchie, or whatever, causing Cashner to spend inordinate amounts of time on the disabled list. His 2014 was great, when he pitched, which was about 3/5 of the season. In 2015, Cashner pitched a career high 184 innings. That’s the good news. The bad news: Those innings weren’t so great. Cashner was way too hittable, giving up 200 hits in those innings, as well as 66 walks. That resulted in a career high hits-given-up rate and walks-given-up rate. Cashner did keep the homers in check, giving up just 19 of them. The result was a rather mediocre 4th starter season when the Padres were hoping for some ace quality work.
Ian Kennedy was also disappointing. The reason for his downfall was easy to figure out: in 2014, Kennedy gave up 16 homers. In 2015, he gave up 31. All of his other numbers were about the same. Alas, those homers really hurt Kennedy’s season. His ERA jumped over half a run.
And finally: Odrisamer Despaigne. This is where disaster really struck. Despaigne went from being a very useful fifth starter to becoming a dumpster fire. To be fair, Despaigne wasn’t expected to pitch as much as he did because china doll Brandon Morrow was expected to be the team’s 5th starter. And Morrow started off great in his first 5 starts. Then, like usual, something in Morrow’s body went sproing and that was that. Morrow never did return in 2015 (how shocking!). So poor Odrisamer Despaigne was thrown into the breach. The result: His homers-given-up rate doubled, his hits-given-up rate increased by 50%, and his ERA paid the price, increasing by over 2 full runs. Despaigne is a junkball pitcher of the first order. In 2014, he was able to fool most of the people, most of the time. In 2015, the jig was up; he was fooling hardly anybody. The Padres had a huge hole at 5th starter all season and were unable to fill it with Despaigne or the likes of Robbie Erlin or Casey Kelly.
So, Tyson Ross held serve, but Kennedy, Cashner, and Despaigne all regressed and Shields had one of his poorest years also. Some of this was due to bad outfield defense (I’m talking about you Matt Kemp). Some of it was due to Petco Park being a bit more hitter friendly. However, most of it was likely due to the random vagaries of pitchers in general. The homers given up is especially alarming. Not even better outfield defense can fix that problem.
So, what about 2016?
2016: Come Back Soon Tyson Ross
Ian Kennedy was let go and Odrisamer Despaigne was kindly asked to depart as well. The Big Three, Tyson Ross, James Shields, and Andrew Cashner are still around. New additions include Colin Rea from the minors and Drew Pomeranz via a trade. Cesar Vargas from the minors is also available to help fill in the gaps. Robbie Erlin was supposed to be that guy, but his injury history didn’t inspire much confidence that he could survive the season, and as expected, Erlin is now unavailable for awhile.
Right away, Erlin, and then Vargas were needed because disaster struck: Tyson Ross, started one game, pitched terribly, and has been on the disabled list ever since. Ross is the ace of the staff, and he has been quite reliable in the past, so this is an unlucky break and very tough for a team to overcome.
James Shields has had a pretty good start. Once again, he is on pace to top 200 innings and he has reduced the number of homers given up. Shields is looking like a solid #2 starter right now. The big surprise is who the functional ace has been so far: Drew Pomeranz! Pomeranz was a first round pick many years ago and has bounced around a bit, previously pitching for Colorado and Oakland. Yet, he is only 27 years old and of course, pitching in Coors Field as a rookie is a nearly impossible assignment for any pitcher. Pomeranz is probably breathing much easier seeing the environs of Petco Park around him, and realizing, hey, this is *not* Coors Field, woo hoo! It would not be a surprise if the improvement from Pomeranz is real. This was a great pick up by Preller, possibly the best move he’s made since he was hired. The one concern is that right now, Pomeranz actually leads the league in fewest hits given up (per nine innings). There is probably some luck involved with Pomeranz’s miniscule hit rate, but even with some correction, Pomeranz will likely contribute solid work for the Padres this season.
Andrew Cashner once again has spent some time on the disabled list this season, and once again, his numbers have been disappointing. The talent is clearly there, but the consistency and command just aren’t. His ridiculous beard isn’t helping things either. Cashner appears to be doing about what he did last year, but less of it because of his typical lack of durability. The Padres won’t win more games because of Cashner this season, but at least it appears that he won’t be losing them anymore than he did last year either.
Colin Rea was one of the Padres top 10 prospects last season and he has now graduated to the big club. He is about as meh as can be. He doesn’t have great stuff or superior command. He is durable however, and he isn’t terrible, which definitely has value. The Padres have had trouble with pitcher durability so Rea will be welcome in that department. There is also a chance for further growth as Rea learns his craft and gets major league pitching instruction, but at least for 2016, Rea is not going to lead the team to the promised land all by himself.
Cesar Vargas is nominally the 5th starter right now, but it won’t last. Vargas gets by on moxie and a bulldog mentality and you gotta love rooting for guys like this. But, eventually the league will figure him out and it will be painful to watch. It already is a bit painful, as Vargas has an ERA over 5.00. Unfortunately, this starting stint is likely to be the high point of Vargas’s major league career, that is, until he eventually settles in as low-leverage long reliever. Instead, the 5th starter to watch on this team is Christian Friedrich, who like his fellow teammate Pomeranz is a byproduct of the Colorado Rockies organization. Friedrich, like Pomeranz, was a highly regarded prospect who shot through the minor league system only to get pummeled in Coors Field. Like many a Rockie pitching prospect, the experience set him back for awhile. Eventually, the Rockies moved on and the Padres smartly snagged him. So far, the results in triple-A and now in the majors have been promising. In his short time with the Padres in the majors so far, he has yet to surrender a homer, but his control has been somewhat wobbly.
There is no one else of note in the high minors for the Padres, so this is what they must go forward with for 2016. It will really help if Tyson Ross can come back sooner rather than later from his injury (he’s expected back in early July). If he does, Ross, with Pomeranz and an improved Shields, could lead the Padres to solid pitching numbers this season. Without Ross, it will be difficult for the Padres to make any noise whatsoever this year. A.J. Preller is probably praying every day for Tyson Ross’ swift recovery because Ross’ return to the rotation sooner rather than later might determine whether Preller even has the GM job for 2017.