The idea behind this off-seasons major offensive overhaul was that the Padres had one area of strength upon which to build.
In 2014 the Padres pitching staff is almost entirely to credit with the team winning as many games as they did (which, admittedly, weren’t many but far more than a team that hit as poorly as they did should win). 10th in MLB in WAR, 6th in xFIP, an 8.6% HR/FB ratio. They were solid. And even accounting for some regression and the possibility of injuries, there was little reason to worry about the pitching staff.
Then they added James Shields and Craig Kimbrel. And suddenly the Padres appeared to be a case of the rich getting richer. But in 2015 that has not happened yet.
As of Tuesday’s game in Seattle, the Padres have given up more HRs then any other team in baseball. They are last in baseball as a staff by WAR. And their HR/FB ratio has doubled to 16.9% (as of Wednesday morning when I’m writing this).
The part of the team that saw the least amount of turnover and included the addition of James Shields has somehow severely regressed. An easy scapegoat thus far has been Derek Norris, which at this point is at least a reasonable question. The biggest change the pitching staff underwent was a new catcher. But can a catcher account for such a drop-off in results?
Let’s start with James Shields. For one, Shields leads the team in HRs allowed. He has allowed half the amount of HRs this season as he did last year in only 1/5th of the starts. The culprit? A hard-to-comprehend 25% HR/FB ratio. A quarter of the balls hit in the air against Shields end up in the seats! That is far and away his highest ratio in his career, despite now pitching in San Diego. He’s also allowing more flyballs then ever before which is a bad plan when so many of those balls are landing in the seats. Moreover, per Fangraphs, his hard hit percentage is up nearly 7% points. It’s worth noting that his K/9 rate is also up, into the double digits for the first time in his career. Now, part of that I suppose could be credited to the move to the NL were you get to face the pitcher. But, as has been theorized, is the defensive liability behind him making him feel like he has to strike out more guys? I have no idea.
I do know one thing though. For whatever reason, James Shields pitch selection this year has dramatically altered from last season (and from his career). Particularly, his knuckle curveball. This season Shields throws the knuckle curve 21% of the time. That’s up nearly 10% from the last two seasons (though is on pace with his 2011 season). Per Baseball Prospectus, the knuckle curve is Shields worst pitch of his 4. Further, his best pitch per that same scouting report, his changeup, is being thrown less (though not dramatically less, about 2.5%). Then there’s this from BrooksBaseball.net.
His curve generates more whiffs/swing compared to other pitchers’ curves, has primarily 12-6 movement and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ curves. His sinker has little sinking action compared to a true sinker and results in somewhat more flyballs compared to other pitchers’ sinkers.
Shields worst pitch, which he is throwing far more of for some reason, is also the same pitch that allows more flyballs than other pitchers. Flyballs that, a quarter of the time, end up as HRs.
On the bright side, last year Shields gave up fewer HRs and had a lower HR/FB ratio in the second half, buoyed in no small part by a .268 BABIP in the 2nd half. Perhaps Big Game James is really just 2nd Half James.
Andrew Cashner, 2nd on the staff in HRs allowed, is suffering the same fate. As with Shields, his HR/FB is considerably higher than it has been in the past (17.8% vs 6% last year). Like Shields, he also has a higher K/9 rate as well (9.20 vs 6.79 last year). And like Shields, Cashner is using a subpar pitch for him (in this case the changeup) more than he did last year (throwing it 15% of the time vs 10%).
Ian Kennedy has allowed 28% of his flyballs to become HRs. 28%!!!! His issues are harder to diagnosis as he is throwing his same repertoire at roughly the same clip. In fact, he’s allowing less flyballs in total then he ever has before. But for some reason this year they are leaving the park at an alarming rate.
It’s hard to say why the change in pitch selection, or why the alarming HR/FB rate is occurring. One would think that a quarter of flyballs leaving the yard is not a sustainable pace. Which is the brightside to all of this. The pitching didn’t just magically become awful. Perhaps it’s partially bad luck. Perhaps they are failing to make adjustments mid-game. It’s hard to say. But the problem doesn’t appear to be pitch framing. It’s pitch selection and location. Hopefully, those are solvable problems sooner rather than later.
I don’t think Norris is the problem. But it’s hard not to look at the two games Hedges started and realize that Kennedy and Cashner had their best game of the season on those days. Take that with a huge grain of salt. But the longer balls keep leaving the yard at the clip they are currently, the louder the call will be to have Hedges start over Norris, if for no other reason than to try something, ANYTHING, different.
For now though, let’s try to keep the ball on the ground fellas.