The Cardinals went into yesterday with a good chance to make the playoffs, win or lose. They may have needed help from the San Francisco Giants or to play the doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, but the easiest route was to just win. With a Giants loss and a Reds win, the Cardinals were in the weird position of either facing the San Diego Padres as the #5 seed or Los Angeles Dodgers as the #8 seed. Since they won, they face the Padres.
The last time the Cardinals saw the Padres, they were a 70-92 team and placed last in the NL West. Things have changed. Not only are the Padres now in 2nd place in the NL West with a 37-23 record, they also have the best NL record of any team not named the Dodgers. In case you were wondering, they also have the second best run differential in the NL, outscoring opponents by 84 runs in the 60 games. In comparison, the Cardinals have a +11 run differential.
Going into the 1st round, the question has to be “Are they for real?” Well, yes. And no. Just let’s strip the specifics and focus on the fact that the Padres won 70 games last year and played 60 games this year. Keep in mind that the Padres are on a 100 win pace. That is a 30 win improvement. I seriously doubt they would actually be a 100 win team if they played a full season. At the same time, hard to ignore that run differential. That’s not a fluke. Let’s focus on the specifics and see what the Padres offered in 2020.
Here are some impressive stats. The Padres are tied for the third most home runs in baseball and have the third highest isolated power (ISO) in baseball. They have these numbers while playing half their games at the notorious pitcher’s park, Petco Park. They are led by 21-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis, with 17 HRs and a .297 ISO.
In fact, they have five players with at least 100 PAs and a .200 ISO. To the chagrin of Cardinals fans everywhere, one of them is Manny Machado, with a .279 ISO and 16 HRs. They also have former Brewer Trent Grisham, with 10 HRs and a .206 ISO. Cards fans can relate to the pain, Brewers fans, on losing an outfielder who played better than he did with you. It’s at this point in the list where I seriously start to doubt the reliability of players to continue performing this way: Eric Hosmer (never in his life with a .200+ ISO with a .231 ISO) and Wil Myers (career high .220 ISO - .306 ISO on the year).
With power comes strikeouts... except not so much here. They have the 6th best K% in the league. Granted, the guys who do bring power do strike out, except for Machado and Hosmer, and Hosmer’s power numbers are not to be trusted. They are middle of the pack in walks and middle of the pack in BABIP. So the book or hope if you will, is to strike out the guys who are prone to the K and hope Machado slumps. That’s the best I got here.
You take an offense that is unaffected by Petco Park and then you add Petco Park, and well that’s a dangerous team. The Padres are 5th in the league in K/9, 5th in the league in BB/9, and 6th in the league in HR/9. However, I will say that generally speaking their pitching seems to be a problem, but when you look at the individual pitchers, well theoretically they seem more beatable here.
The potential Game 1 starter would feature a pitcher where the previous statement would not be true. It would not be true at all. Dinelson Lamet has a ridiculous 34.8 K% on the season to go with just a 7.5 BB%. He doesn’t get groundballs that often, with a 36.9 GB% and this is where the benefit of Petco comes into play. But still, that K/BB ratio leads to a 2.48 FIP and well, we’ll be playing at Petco so it’s not like the HR/FB% won’t still be beneficial. Not that playing at Busch would help us much either though.
After that? Well, with Mike Clevinger out for the first round, the Padres have a couple pretty mediocre starters. A name familiar to Cards fans, Zach Davies, would pitch one of the two games. He has a 2.73 ERA, but a 3.88 FIP and a 4.14 xFIP. Davies has a career 4.55 ERA against the Cardinals. The other man, Chris Paddack, has struggled immensely with HRs. Somehow he has a 25 HR/FB% on the year. He has allowed 14 HRs in 12 starts. That’s pretty much his only flaw, but it’s a flaw that’s gave him a 4.73 ERA, so it’s a big flaw.
Four pitchers have gotten saves for the Padres, but the current closer appears to be former Cardinal Trevor Rosenthal who has been unbelievable for the Padres. Despite pitching just 9 innings for them, he has the second best WAR among relievers on their team, thanks to 14 strikeouts to one walk. Their closer before Rosie Drew Pomeranz has risen from the dead this year, to post a 1.45 ERA. He has some issues with walks, but he’s struck out so many it hasn’t mattered.
They also recently acquired Austin Adams, who has spent the majority of the year on the IL, but he appears healthy now and he is terrifying. I remember facing him last season against the Mariners and when he’s clicking, he’s unhittable. He had a 41.1 K% with the Mariners last year. His K% right now... is also 41.2%. He allowed two runs yesterday and has only pitched 4 total innings, so his ERA is 4.50. Maybe we aren’t catching him when things are clicking, but the K% suggests we are.
Rounding out the “guy I don’t want to face” list is probably Pierce Johnson, whose overall numbers are more fine than great, but he does come with a 12.15 K/9. Starting pitcher Garrett Richards might be used in the bullpen as well. So basically they have a righty who kills righties (Adams), a lefty who kills lefties (Pomeranz), a shutdown closer (Rosenthal), pretty solid middle reliever (Johnson), and a guy who can pitch a few innings (Richards). The rest of the bullpen is not impressive, but that’s usually true past five guys.
Well, here we have an interstat fight, because DRS and UZR seem to disagree on the Padres defense. UZR and thus Fangraphs has the Padres with the third best defense in the majors. DRS, or defensive runs saved, has the Padres with just a +4 and 15th in the majors. I’d say that’s quite the difference. Both DRS and UZR agree on Trent Grisham, who is a +7 by DRS and a +20 UZR/150 fielder. I am somewhat skeptical he’s that good, but he’s not the reason for the disparity nonetheless.
One of the bigger disparities is probably Tatis Jr. Last year, UZR did not think he was a good fielder. This year, UZR thinks he’s a +4 fielder. DRS has him as a net neutral fielder. Overall Tatis Jr is a -4 fielder by UZR/150 for his career so far though. Anyway, I can’t really figure out specifically why there’s such a large difference in the two stats aside from that, but the Cardinals may or may not have the advantage in fielding depending on which stat you trust. If you average out the two, the Cardinals come out ahead thanks to placing 1st in DRS and 7th in fielding runs.
They also steal bases
Yeah. So they are good at hitting, good at fielding, and good at pitching, and to top it all off, they lead the majors in stolen bases. They are, however, somewhat fascinatingly, not a particularly good baserunning team. It’s not because they aren’t successful at stealing bases. They have an 80% success rate. They are, despite that, 13th in the league in BsR, which more or less means that they are a below average baserunning team aside from when they swipe bags. Cause their BSR is just +0.8 as a team.
Machado has been the worst offender, and he’s actually been a bad baserunner for his career. This may have something to do with his success rate (6 stolen bases to 3 caught stealing) and the fact that he’s slow (387th in sprint speed). Tatis Jr. leads the team with 11 stolen bases and Grisham also has 10 stolen bases. Keep in mind that with 54 steals in 60 games, they still steal less than once a game. And however much he’s declined, teams still don’t steal off Yadi very much. So I’m not sure steals will come into play despite them being 1st in the majors in this category.
In other words, how much credit should we give to their record since they only faced teams in the NL and AL West? I’ll get the best team here out of the way: they went 4-6 against the Dodgers. They also went 2-1 against the 36-24 Athletics. Everybody else they faced had a losing record.
Okay so they contributed to the Houston Astros 29-31 record, sweeping them in the only series they faced them. They also went 8-2 against the Giants. Now, the Astros seem better than their record, the Giants... do not. Despite the fact that the Padres are largely responsible for the Giants having a losing record, I just do not think they’re good.
And aside from that, they faced the rebuilding Mariners, the sadsack Angels, the collapsing Rangers, the inept Rockies, and the unfortunate Dbacks. You could, if one were so inclined, say they benefited from the schedule here. The West, both NL and AL, combined for four playoff teams. The Central combined for seven playoff teams. It’s really hard to know though because nobody played out of division, but this is certainly an interesting wrinkle. (If you don’t believe in the NL Central, fine, but the AL Central had three 35+ win teams)
So there you have it. A team with essentially no weaknesses. But like I said, they weren’t tested for 162 games nor out of division, so they very well might not be this good, and the pitching matchups aren’t deadly either. It’s going to be tough, because the odds are good that they’ll immediately be put in an 0-1 hole thanks to Lamet, but as we always say, playoffs are random. We just need one spectacular outing from one of our starters, and one dud from theirs, and if you can time them to appear during separate games, you have two wins. And if not, well, the Cards faced the second toughest team in the NL and them’s the breaks.