Are you ready for this one? Oh, I don't know. I don't think you're ready for this one.
The San Diego Padres are a fascinating team. A team on a tiny budget picked to finish last, well behind four other legitimate contenders, the Padres instead exploded out of the gate and have yet to stop winning, sitting currently with the best record in the National League and the third-best record in baseball. Their success has been as surprising as any team's success in recent history, and the theme of the last few months has been trying to figure out how it is that they're doing what they're doing.
Most have, naturally, given credit to the pitching and the defense. The Padres have the best team ERA in baseball, and according to the advanced metrics we have at our disposal, they also have the best fielding, ahead of teams like San Francisco and Tampa Bay. Given these two facts, and a low-scoring offense that revolves around Adrian Gonzalez and only around Adrian Gonzalez, the Padres have been called an old-school team, a team that plays the game "the way it's supposed to be played," and a team that is based strictly on extreme run prevention.
Now, to be sure, the Padres' greatest strength is keeping the opponent off the board. Their league-best ERA isn't a fluke or an accident. However, there is one thing that people ought to keep in mind, and it's something I think most people know but don't properly take into account: the Padres play in an extreme pitcher-friendly ballpark.
Petco Park has worked for pitchers since the day it came alive, just slaughtering fly balls that in other parks would go for home runs or doubles. The power alleys, in particular, are murder, affording plenty of space for outfielders to run balls down. As a whole, the park reduces run scoring by something like 10%, making it one of the most extreme environments in the league. And this, as you can imagine, helps the pitchers look better, and makes the hitters look worse.
Subjectively, we know that to be true. And objectively, we can adjust for its effect. Everybody should be familiar with OPS. Baseball-Reference.com provides a stat called OPS+, which adjusts OPS for the ballpark environment and puts it on a scale where an OPS+ of 100 is average, an OPS+ under 100 is below average, and an OPS+ over 100 is above average. It's not a perfect statistic for reasons that I won't get into, but it's a handy one that's pretty good, and easy to find.
So what do we see when we go to Baseball-Reference and click on the Padres? On the one hand, we see a miserable .253 team batting average and a low .704 team OPS. But in the next column over, we see an OPS+ of 100. Exactly average. The Padres' offense has looked pretty mediocre, and many have written it off as a weakness, but the truth of the matter is that, when you adjust for the run-suppressing park in which they play, they haven't been bad. Nor have they been good. They've been average. Pretty much right on the nose.
Having an average offense, of course, isn't high praise. The Brewers have a potent offense and their team is lousy. This, though, is an important consideration when people examine how the Padres have gotten to where they are. Sure, they've had good defense and good pitching (albeit pitching that's been worse than it seems for the same reason the offense has been better than it seems). But it's not like the offense has been bringing up the rear and trudging along. It's been fine. Mildly productive, even. It has only been a weakness relative to the other strong components of the team - namely the rotation, the bullpen, and the defense.
Yeah, Adrian Gonzalez is the big-name star. That much is obvious. But there have been other contributors. When you account for Petco, the Padres have gotten pretty good production from catcher. They've gotten pretty good production from Will Venable. They've gotten pretty good production from Scott Hairston. They've gotten pretty good production from Chris Denorfia. They've gotten decent production from Chase Headley. The Padres' batting order isn't imposing by any means, but it also doesn't have as many holes as one might think. Even Jerry Hairston and David Eckstein have been passable at the plate from the middle infield.
The Padres aren't a juggernaut, and they could use an improvement at the trade deadline to put them over the top. That improvement, though, doesn't necessarily have to be in the form of a bat. The bats are all right, and better than they're given credit for. The extreme ballpark environment just skews the perception when the truth, as is almost always the case with everything, lies somewhere closer to the middle.
From one extreme environment to another, we move to Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park, which doesn't behave the way Petco does. Rather, it behaves in ways dissimilar, most notably by increasing home runs. Cincinnati isn't an extreme run-scoring environment, but it is an extreme home run environment, boosting them by 22% for left-handed hitters and 35% for right-handed hitters, according to the park factors at StatCorner.com. Those are big, big rates.
And when you look at the leaderboards and see Joey Votto tied with Prince Fielder for the most longballs in the National League, this is something you have to keep in mind. Yeah, Votto's a surprising name. But he's also a guy who's gotten some help from his home stadium. On the year, he has 14 dingers at home, and nine on the road, in comparable amounts of playing time. That's a sizeable difference.
And we don't just see it in 2010, either. If you look at Votto's career, you see 46 dingers at home - one per 17 trips to the plate - and 30 dingers on the road - one per 27 trips to the plate. That is a significant split. Please keep in mind that this is not a criticism of Votto. I don't mean to disparage a guy who has blossomed into a terrific, middle-of-the-order bat. He's just clearly taken some advantage of a friendly home environment, as any hitter should.
So Votto's home run totals should be treated the same way people are accustomed to treating home run totals from Colorado or Texas. You take them with a grain of salt. You figure that a chunk of that total is real, but that some portion of it is also because of the ballpark.
Here's the interesting thing, though. Votto's hit more homers in Cincinnati, and has slugged .580 at home this year as a result. But even with fewer homers on the road, he's still slugged .567 when away. Reason? Doubles and triples.
2010, Home: 9.8 plate appearances per extra-base hit
2010, Road: 9.5 PA/xbH
Career, Home: 9.2 PA/xbH
Career, Road: 9.3 PA/xbH
Joey Votto hits more home runs at home than he does when away, but when he's playing somewhere else, those home runs don't turn into outs - they turn into doubles and triples he hits off the wall, to such a degree that his extra-base hit rate is actually the same whether he's at home or on the road. So while leaving GABP may take a toll on his homer total, it actually leaves his total number of extra-base hits intact.
The short of it: Joey Votto's place atop the NL leaderboard in home runs is due in part to the fact that he plays half his games in a homer-friendly ballpark. Joey Votto's place near the top of the list in terms of best hitters alive - that's real.
I don't think I have to tell you how often we hear from fans and journalists alike that, because of its payroll landscape, baseball is unfair. It does make sense. The Yankees' Opening Day payroll this year was nearly six times that of the Pirates, and a full $34m higher than the second-place Red sox. When people call for baseball to adopt a salary cap, as they so often do, this is what they have in mind - they want to put a cap on out-of-control spending so that the more privileged teams can't just buy their way to the playoffs.
I do agree that something should probably be done about the way different teams spend different amounts of money. When I sit back and really think about it, I have trouble with the fact that the Yankees are able to do what they do while the rest of the league looks on with envy. They've earned that money, certainly, and they've earned their standing as an empire, but it still just doesn't sit well with me. It seems funny. It seems fishy.
Still, while baseball's payroll landscape is kind of screwed up, I do think it's worth taking this opportunity to note that, while money is important, it isn't everything. Here are the teams with the highest 2010 Opening Day payrolls, by division:
AL East: Yankees
AL Central: Tigers
AL West: Angels
NL East: Phillies
NL Central: Cubs
NL West: Giants
And here are the current division leaders, as of Thursday afternoon, along with their in-division payroll rank:
AL East: Yankees (1)
AL Central: White Sox (2)
AL West: Rangers (3)
NL East: Braves (3)
NL Central: Cardinals (2)
NL West: Padres (5)
Only one team currently leading its division in payroll also leads its division in record. Meanwhile, other big-money teams have spent their way into inconsistency and trouble, while the Rangers and Padres have excelled with the fourth- and second-lowest Opening Day payrolls in baseball, respectively. Granted, the Rangers have since added Cliff Lee, but they were well in first place before the deal was made.
The lesson here is not that money is insignificant. Money is huge. Having money is huge. Having money gives a team an advantage; it gives them some more wiggle room so that every move doesn't have to be perfect. However, front office acumen and plain old luck are enormous factors as well, and those are two things that will never even out or reach a balance. Complain about uneven payrolls. Raise hell about uneven payrolls. But understand that uneven payrolls do not determine the way a season plays out. Just ask the teams in the West.
Fangraphs - a leading host and provider of some of baseball's best and most complicated statistics - keeps track of a stat called Zone%. Zone% measures the percent of pitches that end up in the strike zone. Zone% for hitters measures the number of pitches in the zone that they see, while Zone% for pitchers measures the number of pitches in the zone that they throw.
The average Zone% for 2010 is about 47%. In other words, about 47% of all pitches thrown so far have ended up in the strike zone. Note that there's a difference between Zone% and Strike%. Strike% measures called strikes and swings. Zone% just measures pitch location.
For a hitter, a low Zone% can mean one of two things. The first is that pitchers are afraid of the hitter and don't want to give him anything to mash. This is why guys like Travis Hafner, David Ortiz, and Carlos Pena don't see many strikes. They can hit strikes a long way. The second is that pitchers know the hitter is over-aggressive and want to get him out with balls. This is why guys like Pablo Sandoval, Vladimir Guerrero, and Alfonso Soriano don't see many strikes. Granted, those are guys who can hit the ball a long way, but they're also guys who will swing at everything, so pitchers see little reason to throw them pitches in the zone.
However, while a low Zone% can mean two things, a high Zone% can mean only one thing - pitchers aren't afraid of you. Pitchers are coming right after you, because they have so little concern that you can even punish a pitch down the middle.
Your 2010 leader right now in Zone%? One Jack Wilson, at 56.6%, a full 2.1 points ahead of Placido Polanco. Pitchers are so unafraid of Jack Wilson doing any damage that they've been going right after him, and more often than not, it's been working. Wilson's hit just .250 with zero home runs, and because of the pitching approach, he's also drawn just three walks, leading to a pitiful .272 OBP.
This isn't a new thing, either, as pitchers have been going after Wilson his entire career. The gap now between his Zone% and the league average Zone%, though, is at a career high, as pitchers have realized that an already weak and mediocre hitter is reaching his decline. Wilson could hardly punish a strike at his peak. Wilson now barely has a prayer.
Sometimes, a slumping hitter will tell the press he's frustrated because he isn't seeing any good pitches to hit. Jack Wilson is seeing a lot of good pitches to hit. He's not hitting them. I don't want to say he's finished as a regular, since he can still put the bat on the ball and he fields with the best of them, but it's clear that, when Jack Wilson steps to the plate, opposing pitchers are giving him very little respect. And there's really no compelling reason for that to change.
Another stat they keep track of at Fangraphs is run support for pitchers. This is not calculated as run support over an entire game. This is calculated as run support while a pitcher is still pitching. For example, let's say you have a pitcher who goes six innings and leaves with a 3-3 score. His team then goes on to win 6-4 in nine. Fangraphs will calculate his run support as three runs, or 4.5 runs per nine innings.
The Major League leader in run support so far is Phil Hughes, at 8.07 runs per nine innings. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise. The Yankees can really hit. The bigger surprise is in who comes in second: Minnesota's Nick Blackburn, at 7.06. The Twins have some good hitters, but the next-highest run support on the team is Kevin Slowey, at 5.73. There's a big gap, there.
This isn't particularly interesting on its own. Unusually high or low run support, by and large, is a fluke, dependent on the team's offense, the opposing pitchers, and the sample size. Over a broader period of time, we would expect these things to even out. What makes Blackburn's run support interesting is that Nick Blackburn recently got pulled from the rotation for pitching really poorly. Among qualified pitchers, Blackburn's 6.53 ERA is the worst in baseball, north of Kevin Millwood by three-quarters of a run.
Put these things together. Blackburn has allowed 78 runs in 102 innings, for an R/9 of 6.88. Blackburn has received 80 runs of support, for an RS/9 of 7.06. While Blackburn's been in the game, then, there's been a total run output of 13.94 runs per nine innings.
Considering the average total run output is just over nine runs a game, what's happened with Blackburn seems exceptional. And, sure enough, that total run output while Blackburn's been involved stands as the highest mark in the league. Blackburn comes in at 13.94 runs for + runs allowed per nine innings. In second place is Carlos Zambrano, a full run behind at 12.94.
Is it the most meaningful stat in the world? Not by any means. Blackburn isn't as poor a pitcher as he showed, and the Twins' offense isn't as good as it's been with Blackburn on the hill. In other words, it's unsustainable. But what it does go to show is that, while Blackburn has been a real mess, at least the offense has shown up to try to take the pressure off. Nick Blackburn has the worst ERA among qualified starters, and the Twins are 10-8 in his starts, because they've scored a bunch of runs. That is how you keep a gascan from sinking you.