When Matt Stairs arrived as the new hitting coach, it was clear what he wanted to do. He is teaching a “stubborn” approach at the plate, working the count and waiting for a good pitch to drive instead of settling for a pitcher’s pitch early in the count.
It’s no secret the Padres have struggled to get on base in past seasons. We have addressed it on the site very recently. Although we should take most spring training results with a grain of salt, the early returns 16 games in are very encouraging.
No one was immune to poor approaches last year. The Padres brought in Eric Hosmer, but he can’t fix it all by himself. He can only set an example, which he has done nicely before as he has a lifetime .342 on-base percentage, and his 9.8% walk rate from last year would have been second-best on the team last season.
So far, this spring has shown the Padres players are listening to Stairs. In 16 games, the Padres have 75 walks, which is 4.7 walks per game. Last season during spring training, the Padres averaged a measly 2.8. Two more walks per game is huge. If this translates into the regular season, the Friars will put up more runs. Working walks means deeper counts, deeper counts mean more pitches, more pitches means more tired pitchers, and more tired pitchers means more hittable mistakes for Padres batters.
Let’s dive into the history a little more to see if we can see a trend in spring walks and regular season success. 2016 was almost identical in walks per game during the spring, and the Friars struggled offensively in that season as well. It was 2012 since the Padres averaged more than three walks per game, and for once the Padres were not among the five worst offenses in baseball that regular season.
The last time the Padres averaged more than four walks per game (in the spring, mind you) was in 2006, oh, you know, just the last time the Padres made the playoffs. Now that’s more of a fun tidbit than a season-projection tool, but it’s almost like having patience at the plate and working walks leads to success. Matt Stairs might be on to something!
Now we are merely halfway through spring training games. This game has a habit of averaging out. However, if you are watching these games, you cannot deny the Padres are having better at-bats. It just feels different. Luis Urias is becoming one of my favorite players and he only has nine professional home runs in four seasons. He’s not about the trendy long ball. This spring, he has four walks to his four strikeouts. Last season in Double-A San Antonio, he had 68 walks and 65 strikeouts. You would be hard-pressed to find a hitter these days who walks more than he strikes out (Tony Gwynn would yawn in boredom at today’s hitters’ struggles with that).
Austin Hedges is another example of improvement. Last year, besides some power, he had an abysmal year at the plate with his strikeout rate at 29.3% and his walk rate at 5.5%. This spring he has worked five walks thus far, and with a small sample size, that walk rate would be 23.8%. Hedges also just looks different at the plate. Let’s hope that continues.
If the everyday Padres hitters models their approach after Matt Stairs and Luis Urias, this team will win lots of games. It has shown halfway through spring games that these Padres will be different at the plate. The key now is to keep that going through the regular season. This is a long season and sometimes coaching goes stale, so it’s up to Stairs to keep the pedal down and keep pushing this approach, because for now, it’s working and everyone can see it.