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What Happened To This Once-Promising Padres Season?

The San Diego Padres were one of baseball’s great breakout stories of 2020, rising from a 70-92 season in 2019 to the full-season equivalent of 100 wins during the pandemic-shortened campaign. Led by the twin MVP candidacies of third baseman Manny Machado and wunderkind shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr., plus a strong pitching staff, the Padres made the postseason for the first time in over a decade. They also won their opening playoff series over the St. Louis Cardinals before falling to the eventual champion Los Angeles Dodgers. Looking ahead to 2021, the future seemed even brighter when the team spent the offseason adding talent, including starters Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove.

The resulting team has been good: the Padres are 10 games over .500, with the ninth-best Pythagorean record in MLB. But it might not be good enough. What was supposed to be a season where San Diego vied with the Dodgers for NL West dominance has turned into one where the Padres are in an uphill battle just to make the playoffs at all. According to our MLB forecast model, San Diego has only a 25 percent chance of getting to the postseason, down from 75 percent before the season and as high as 86 percent a month ago. All of a sudden, a team that seemed like a postseason fixture might not actually be there when October baseball gets underway.

The Padres’ recent collapse has been as swift as it has been stunning. After losing two of three to the Philadelphia Phillies1 over the weekend, San Diego has now dropped nine of its last 11 games and 16 of its last 26. Injuries have devastated the Padres over the past month, particularly on the pitching side: Darvish, Dinelson Lamet, Chris Paddack, Drew Pomeranz, Matt Strahm and even Jake Arrieta (who was only signed to add depth in the wake of the other injuries) are all currently on the injured list, among others who’ve been there even longer.2 Relatedly, since the All-Star break, San Diego pitchers are allowing an OPS 16 percent higher (and have an ERA 40 percent higher) than they did in the season’s first half — and pitching coach Larry Rothschild was shown the door on Monday. A team that went all-in on pitching to match the Dodgers’ own stacked staff has seen that plan evaporate in a cloud of late-season injuries.

Tatís also briefly hit the IL in late July after another shoulder injury, the latest in what has been a concerning series of them for the brilliant 22-year-old. Fortunately for San Diego, Tatís returned to action within a few weeks, though he has been moved to right field to protect his shoulder, forcing Jake Cronenworth to shift from second base to shortstop (where he has been worse defensively in his career — though Tatís’s defensive metrics at short had also slipped this season). But even including his momentary absence, you can’t blame Tatís for San Diego’s shrinking playoff odds. Over the full season, he ranks fourth among position players in wins above replacement3 per 162 team games,4 trailing only a pair of Toronto Blue Jays — Marcus Semien and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. — and the Dodgers’ Max Muncy.

Tatís has been carrying his share of the Padres’ weight

MLB leaders (per 162 team games) in wins above replacement as position players, 2021 season*

Player Team(s) Position WAR per 162 Gms.
Marcus Semien TOR 2B 7.32
Vladimir Guerrero Jr. TOR 1B 6.74
Max Muncy LAD 1B 6.69
Fernando Tatís Jr. SDP SS 6.63
Carlos Correa HOU SS 6.57
Cedric Mullins BAL CF 6.13
Jake Cronenworth SDP 2B 6.08
Trea Turner LAD, WSN SS 6.07
Juan Soto WSN RF 5.98
José Ramírez CLE 3B 5.89
Matt Olson OAK 1B 5.88
Shohei Ohtani LAA DH 5.80
Xander Bogaerts BOS SS 5.75
Brandon Crawford SFG SS 5.66
Bryan Reynolds PIT CF 5.61

*Through games of Aug. 22.
WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs.

Source: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

As a result, Tatís is also the front-runner for National League MVP in the betting markets. He hasn’t shrunk away through San Diego’s slide, either: Tatís’s OPS is higher since the All-Star break than it was before. In the face of concerns that his numbers might regress to the mean after breaking out in an abbreviated season, Tatís has instead improved in many aspects of the game this year, giving the Padres everything they could have hoped for from their franchise superstar.

The same can’t be said of all the players San Diego has been counting on, though. In large part because of all those injuries, Musgrove is the only significant Padres starter who has not been worse by WAR (per 162) in 2021 than he was in 2020. And while Cronenworth has enjoyed a breakout campaign of his own this year, sitting seventh in the position-player WAR rankings above, many of the other Padres who were very productive last season — such as Machado, outfielders Trent Grisham and Wil Myers, first baseman Eric Hosmer and Pomeranz out of the pen — have come back down to earth to varying degrees.

In some ways, this is all a natural part of baseball. Bill James coined the “plexiglass principle” decades ago to describe the phenomenon of teams who improve sharply in one season regressing some in the following season. The Padres’ winning percentage jumped from .432 in 2019 to .617 in 2020; this year, it’s settled somewhere in between, at .540. Not every team who falls victim to the plexiglass principle does it in the same manner, or for the same reasons, but the 2021 Padres are showing us one of the many scenarios by which that phenomenon can occur. (In fact, the Padres might have been more susceptible to it than most, given that their big breakout happened during the shortest MLB schedule since 1877.5)

Other external factors have also interfered with San Diego’s return trip to the postseason. The San Francisco Giants’ unexpected emergence as NL West front-runners injected another tough competitor into what was widely seen as a two-team race between the Dodgers and Padres going into the season. That has taken away one of the playoff slots — either as a division-winner over the Dodgers or a wild-card behind them — that San Diego would have been eyeing on Opening Day. And a Cincinnati Reds team that has gotten better as the season progressed is quickly taking away San Diego’s other path to the postseason. With a strong rotation and a better-than-expected lineup, the Reds are following an inversion of the Padres’ trajectory, having won 18 of their last 26 dating back to late July. Our model now gives Cincinnati a 65 percent chance of making the postseason, much of which was mopped up from the Padres as they were leaking playoff odds over the past month.

Making matters worse for San Diego, they have the toughest remaining schedule in MLB according to Elo, after adjusting for opposing starters and game location. (Cincinnati, by contrast, has the third-easiest remaining slate in baseball.) Of the Padres’ 35 remaining games, 25 are against teams with above-average Elo ratings, including 10 against the Giants, nine against the Dodgers and three each against the Astros and Braves. (Again, the Reds face only eight of those kinds of clubs in total from here on out, the fewest of any team in MLB.) It’s not an impossible journey to navigate, but it will test all of the considerable talent the Padres have on hand.

As inconceivable as it was to think going into 2021 — or even a month ago — San Diego is likely to be on the outside looking in when the playoffs start, an unforeseen setback for a team whose rise had been one of the best and most fun stories of the short 2020 season.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Who themselves had just been swept by the awful Arizona Diamondbacks.

  2. For instance, Mike Clevinger hasn’t pitched for San Diego since September 2020 after undergoing Tommy John surgery last November.

  3. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, which you can download data for on GitHub.

  4. Through games of Aug. 22.

  5. Of course, the same logic could have applied to the Chicago White Sox, who improved from a .447 winning percentage in 2019 to .583 in 2020 … and have settled in at nearly the same mark (.571) in 2021 while looking like one of the scariest teams in baseball. So by no means does the principle always hold.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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