To say that Manuel Margot had a disappointing 2018 season would be an understatement. In just about every facet of the game, he regressed. The Padres’ front office has to hope the regression qualifies as a sophomore slump and that next year he bounces back.
Margot came to the Padres (along with Javier Guerra, Carlos Asuaje, and Logan Allen) via the trade that sent closer Craig Kimbrel to the Boston Red Sox in 2015. Margot signed with the Red Sox as an international free agent in 2011 and started his career with the Padres in Double-A. In 2016 he climbed the Baseball Prospectus rankings from 61 to 14 (right behind former Padre Trea Turner, the current shortstop for the Washington Nationals).
Thanks to a fastball to the ribs, Margot ended up on the disabled list early in April this year, but ended up playing in 141 games. Fellow outfielder Franchy Cordero took his place on the roster when Margot was injured. However, Cordero had his season cut short by elbow surgery for a bone spur.
Known for his speed and quick bat, the Padres didn’t expect much in the way of home runs from Margot, but had high hopes for doubles, triples, and stolen bases. The speedy center fielder ranks 25th in sprint speed at 29.4 feet per second, with Byron Buxton leading baseball at 30.5. Fellow outfielder Travis Jankowski comes in right behind Margot at 29.0.
In 2017, Margot hit seven triples (5th in the National League), and he had eight in 2018 (4th). He increased his total in doubles from 18 last year to 26 this year. Although he did steal 11 bases, he obviously has the capacity to increase that total considerably and to otherwise be a threat on the base paths.
The Padres ranked near the bottom in a wide variety of metrics, but fared well, according to Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). The team’s 49 DRS came in fourth in all of baseball, with Margot saving nine of those runs. However, those numbers pale in comparison to the leaders in defensive runs saved in center field. Lorenzo Cain has 20 with the Milwaukee Brewers and Ender Inciarte of the Atlanta Braves has 17.
According to Statcast, in 2017, Margot made 14.3% of 5-Star catches (those that have a 0-25% probability) for a rank of 12 in Major League Baseball, and 61.5% of 4-Star catches (26-50%) for a rank of 18. This year he made 10% of 5-Star (18th place) and 70% of 4-Star catches (9th) in 10 opportunities (Travis Jankowski made 71.4% of 4-star catches in 14 opportunities).
In his first full year in the big leagues, Manuel played solid baseball with no prolonged slumps at the plate. He actually finished in sixth place the NL Rookie of the Year voting despite losing a month thanks to a balky knee and playing in only 126 games. He batted .263/.313/.409/.721 with an OPS+ of 91 and covered Petco Park’s spacious center field admirably, making several highlight reel catches.
Manager Andy Green started this season putting Margot in the leadoff position. That experiment yielded a disappointing batting line of .222/.222/.333 in April. He found more success batting lower in the order. He surpassed most of his teammates (admittedly not a high bar) when batting with runners on (.304) and runners in scoring position (.313).
But on the whole, the Padres had a disappointing offensive season. Like many of his teammates, Margot flailed on pitches out of the zone. He hardly ever walked and specialized in weak grounders
Thanks to his speed, Margot should be capable of stealing at least 25 to 30 bases. Last year, he stole 17 bases and was caught stealing seven times. This year he regressed, stealing just 11 bags. More alarming, Margot was caught stealing a whopping 10 times. His 50 percent success rate ranked last in all of baseball when compared to players with at least 10 tries.
Margot may have tied with other speedsters in the number of times he was thrown out, but those players had far higher success rates. Whit Merrifield of the Kansas City Royals led all of baseball with 45 stolen bases, while Billy Hamilton of the Cincinnati Reds led the National League with 34.
One of Margot’s major problems this year lay in attempting to run against the the wrong players, including both pitchers and catcher. However, Padres’ coaches, especially the first base coach (Skip Schumaker this year), share responsibility for the glaring weakness.
And then there were the confounding brain cramps, lousy choices in timing, and getting caught with too big a lead. At times, Margot appeared to need GPS, especially when he made inexplicably wide turns rounding second base. In fairness, Margot had company as the entire team went backward in base running, with Travis Jankowski (who had far fewer starts) being the lone exception.
A glance at Margot’s batting line month by month gives a puzzling picture of Margot’s season at the plate:
He ended the year batting .245/.292/.384/.675. Since 2015, when Margot played in just 34 games, his OPS+ has averaged 77. That metric declined from 91 in 2017 to 86 this year. Since 100 OPS+ is considered league average, this particular measurement is very troubling for a player considered to be part of the future.
Margot, who is just 23, has the tools to play at a much higher level. He can more fully utilize his speed if he chooses better spots in which to run. But he also needs to improve his focus so that he avoids being picked off. Since speed never takes a day off and can change a game in a variety of ways, Margot needs to take advantage of that strength.
In Game 3 of the division series between the Milwaukee Brewers and Los Angeles Dodgers, Christian Yellich used his speed in going from first to home and scoring the first run. That set the tone as the Brewers went on to win 4-0. Margot could be just such a game-changer.
Obviously, the Padres’ outfield has an overabundance of bodies, and Cordero’s return will further complicate the picture. While the ball rockets off Cordero’s bat, his shaky defensive skills do not play well in center field.
The Padres’ front office has a myriad of decisions to make this offseason, including deciding which outfielders to move. Thanks to his speed, relative youth, and potential as a defender, Margot will surely be considered the top candidate to patrol center for the Padres in 2018. So far, Margot has just scratched the surface of his perceived potential.