Oh, I did love that Padres offseason, at least as a spectacle. I wrote as much at the time, and who wouldn't have been entertained? The Padres ran into the Winter Meetings screaming "YEEEE-HAW" and firing their six-shooters into the air, and we giggled and clapped. Also, the guns were filled with prospects, and they'll be missed.
But there was some subtext in that article, rereading it. I don't know if this is gonna work, the subtext read, but then the Padres started doing that spinny thing with the revolvers, taking them in and out of the holsters and thrilling us all, so I forgot about it. Except there were no guarantees it was going to work. Smart people with smart projection systems weren't even predicting that they would finish over .500. They didn't have a real shortstop. The catcher was susceptible to the running game. The entire infield was questionable offensively, and, oh, that outfield defense. It had the potential to ruin everything.
The Padres weren't trying to build a .500 team, they were just being resourceful in their search for power. That resourcefulness came at a cost (defense), but the new front office was probably counting on the strikeout power of Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross and James Shields to mitigate the damages. It was so crazy, it just might work. In a new, strikeout-happy baseball universe, wouldn't it make sense to care less about what happens when the ball is put in play?
Maybe! Except that's not what happened. What happened was the ball started going over the fence, early and often, at home and on the road, in a boat and with a goat. Here's the Padres' starters and their ERAs next to their xFIP, which looks at what the ERA might be if fly balls left the yard at a league-average rate.
I'm wary of xFIP being used with dogmatic certainty to evaluate one player, but for an entire team, it's pretty useful. The takeaway is this: Something weird is going on with the Padres, and the slow death by dingers isn't likely to continue. Not like this.
This doesn't excuse the defense, of course. Depending on which stat you use, it's either the worst in the National League or the worst in baseball. That's going to account for some of that ERA/xFIP discrepancy, too. More balls are going over the fence than expected, but fewer balls are getting turned into outs, too.
So that's the setup. The Padres are in trouble because of something they planned on (defense) and something no one could (dingers). In response, they fired a manager who didn't have control of either.
Make a list of what makes the Padres below average, then match up Bud Black's culpability. Matt Kemp devolving into one of baseball's worst all-around players? Not the skipper's fault. Wil Myers getting hurt and stumbling around center field when he's healthy? Not the skipper's fault. The faith that Will Middlebrooks is as good as 267 rookie at-bats suggest, and not as fatally contact-challenged as the other 2,700 professional at-bats suggest? Not the skipper's fault. You can quibble with various strategies and moves, just like you can with any manager, but the big-picture foundation stuff isn't going to be fixed by Black's replacement.
The mood among Internet Padres partisans is that it was time to part ways, and the justification is almost a tautology. It was time to part ways because, well, it was time to part ways. Black never really justified his skipperdom over the last nine seasons, finishing over .500 twice and never reaching the postseason. Not only did he fail to reach the postseason, but the Padres stumbled at the end of both those contending seasons, missing the postseason spots they seemed likely to nab.
Counterargument: Have you looked at the 2010 Padres in a while? It's something of a miracle that they were contending in the first place. That should be a credit to Black's success, not a demerit.
Still, if it's hard to find a reason to keep Black other than "he seems nice," "we're used to him" and "he doesn't leave his old lunches in the breakroom fridge," it's hard to argue that vehemently in his favor. Something had to change. Why not this?
This was a lever the Padres could have pulled in the offseason when the regime change happened, but they didn't, which makes the timing seem odd. Except it makes a certain amount of sense when you look at the different scenarios of Bud Black's lame duck year.
Scenario #1: The Padres are as good as they hoped, contending all season, with Black leading the way.
Scenario #2: The Padres stumble, with Black getting replaced midseason as a way to shake things up. Black's firing in this scenario is one of the only levers the front office can pull before the deadline.
The one thing the front office knew is that Black wasn't going to screw things up completely. There's a very low floor with Black -- they knew he wasn't going to make the players hate him, he wasn't going to spread discontent throughout the clubhouse. He was very sane, rational and liked. There was a risk with a new manager in the beginning of the season, just because there were so many new faces and personalities. The Padres are cushioned against that risk with a new manager now because they're already under .500. It can get worse, but they're already in walking distance of the worst-case scenario, so why not?
And that's the one-sentence description of why Black was fired now instead of before or after the season: Why not? The new front office wanted their own guy, anyway, so it was going to happen. The Padres losing made it easier, if not sensible, to do in the middle of the season.
That's how we got here: Here's how a manager who had very little to do with why his team was losing got fired to see if it could help them start winning. The timing makes sense, even if it takes a little bit of digging to get there. The Padres might be fired up with the change, and they might have a new perspective on baseballing. It's happened before. Managerial changes can have strange, unexpected consequences, so might as well try it before it's too late.
As long as they're not expecting the new guy to fix the defense and teach the pitchers how to keep the ball in the park, they'll be fine.