Why Have the Padres Been Terrible At Hitting For Over Two Decades?

Credit: AP Photo

It’s as common as allergies on an early spring day, or Padres fans clamoring for anything resembling an interesting uniform.

The Padres were bad at hitting as a team in 2018, and have been for quite some time.

The 2004 season was the last time the Padres ranked any higher than 22nd in team batting average. 2004, the year before the Padres won the N.L. West for the first of two straight years. 2004 was also the first year of Petco Park, when Phil Nevin, Mark Loretta, and Brian Giles led the attack, boosting the Padres to a .273 team average, which was seventh in the league.

Only once in the 15 seasons of Petco Park have the Padres been better than 22nd out of 30 teams in team batting. The Padres have made the playoffs twice in the Petco Park era, but 2005 (25th) and 2006 (23rd) did not yield great hitting teams. It’s been all about the pitching since Petco opened.

Let’s take a look at some possible factors as to why this trend has continued.

Ballparks

Now, before you blame the offensive futility on Petco Park, understand that this trend outdates the Petco Park days. Here is a look at the numbers and rankings since 1990:

Year Rank Average
Petco 2018 28 0.235
Petco 2017 30 0.234
Petco 2016 30 0.235
Petco 2015 30 0.243
Petco 2014 30 0.226
Petco 2013 23 0.245
Petco 2012 22 0.247
Petco 2011 29 0.237
Petco 2010 28 0.246
Petco 2009 30 0.242
Petco 2008 28 0.25
Petco 2007 28 0.251
Petco 2006 23 0.263
Petco 2005 25 0.257
Petco 2004 7 0.273
Jack Murphy 2003 21 0.261
Jack Murphy 2002 25 0.253
Jack Murphy 2001 26 0.252
Jack Murphy 2000 28 0.254
Jack Murphy 1999 30 0.252
Jack Murphy 1998 26 0.253
Jack Murphy 1997 9 0.271
Jack Murphy 1996 17 0.265
Jack Murphy 1995 10 0.272
Jack Murphy 1994 9 0.275
Jack Murphy 1993 26 0.252
Jack Murphy 1992 14 0.255
Jack Murphy 1991 24 0.244
Jack Murphy 1990 16 0.257

Really, the Padres have been consistently terrible at hitting as a team since 1998. Yes, the year the Padres won their second National League pennant and appeared in the World Series, they ranked just 26th in hitting. 1990 through 1997 were the peak years of a guy named Tony Gwynn, who surely buoyed the team’s offense. Gwynn was the main reason the Padres weren’t just as terrible in the late 1980’s-early 1990’s.

Petco Park, at first, certainly favored the pitchers. This year, Petco actually ranked 16th in home runs and 13th in runs per game. In 2016, it ranked 19th in home runs and 12th in runs per game. It was also in the top ten for home runs in 2015. The “Petco Park is unfair to hitters” narrative is tired and dead. It has become very fair lately. Plus, the road teams seem to hit against the Padres at Petco just fine.

Since it really has not had everything to do with Petco Park, why have the Padres been so bad at hitting for 20 years? Why can’t the Padres field at least an average hitting team? They had teams finishing last or near last even in the 1990’s, Qualcomm/Jack Murphy Field days. Additionally, the Padres play only half of their games at a supposedly unfavorable ballpark; what is their excuse for the other 81 games?

Numerous Hitting Coaches

Here is a list of hitting coaches the Padres have gone through since 1998:

Merv Rettenmund

Ben Oglivie

Duane Espy

Dave Magadan

Wally Joyner

Jim Lefebvre

Randy Ready

Phil Plantier

Mark Kotsay

Alonzo Powell

Alan Zinter

Luis Ortiz

Matt Stairs

Johnny Washington

That is 14 hitting coaches in 22 seasons, and seven since 2014. It’s hard to establish a culture of hitting well when the hitting coach is in flux every single season, sometimes more often than that. Stairs got the ax after just one year. It was much of the same for the Friars under Stairs, 28th in batting average, 27th in wRC+ and dead last in on-base percentage, which was said to be Stairs’ calling card. Washington now steps in without any Major League Baseball playing experience.

Credit: USA Today

Lack of Depth in the Lineup

As mentioned, Tony Gwynn covered a lot of holes in the Padres’ lineup for many years. At points, Gwynn was the only source of offense the Padres could consistently count on. In 1988, Tony Gwynn batted .313 with a 128 OPS+. The next best hitter on the team was Marvell Wynne, who struck out twice as much as he walked and hit .264.

The Padres have been able to consistently get two players to hit well at once, but then there is a huge drop-off, providing little support or protection in the lineup. In 2010, the Padres went 90-72 and barely missed the playoffs, much due to their nasty pitching. Their hitting was third-to-last in the league and Adrian Gonzalez had to tow the whole load, hitting .298 with 31 home runs. The next best hitter was Will Venable, with a .245 average and 128 strikeouts.

In 2000, it was the Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin show as they combined to hit just under .300 with 57 home runs. Al Martin hit well, but was traded away mid-season, and Bret Boone, hitting .251, was the next best hitter.

This year it was especially true. Among Padres with at least 400 plate appearances, only Hunter Renfroe had a wRC+ over 100, while still hitting .248. The next highest was Eric Hosmer at a 95 wRC+ with a .253 average. The Padres have not exactly rolled out anything resembling Murderer’s Row.

Strikeouts…Strikeouts Everywhere

Nothing good comes from striking out. It’s an epidemic spreading throughout the entire league, but the Padres were doing it long before it was cool. They finished in the top five in strikeouts in 2017 (3rd), 2016 (2nd), 2011 (2nd), 2008 (3rd), 2007 (3rd), 2001 (2nd), 2000 (4th), 1999 (4th), 1994 (3rd), 1993 (5th), and 1991 (2nd). That’s a lot of striking out.

Strikeouts kill rallies, deject hitters, and put pressure on the lineup. If your team is consistently in the top five for striking out, you are going to have a hard time sustaining success or getting any at all. Remember Ryan Ludwick? He was just two years removed from his 2008 season when he hit 37 homers with a .299 average. The Padres traded for him during the exciting 2010 season. He then struck out 57 times in 59 games for the Padres, hitting just .211. Examples like Ludwick are littered all over the past 20 years of Padres baseball.

This season, the Padres had the second-highest strikeout rate in all the league at 25.1%.

Inability to Keep Star Hitters

The list of Anthony Rizzos might be longer than the list of Ludwicks. I am talking about young, developing players with a ton of potential being shipped off by the Padres brass before realizing that huge upside. Rizzo played in 49 games for the Padres in 2011, batting .141 with just one homer. The Padres thought Andrew Cashner was more valuable and shipped Rizzo off to Chicago, where he has now four consecutive 30-homer seasons while batting .271.

Mandatory Credit: AP Photo

David Freese was drafted by the Padres in 2006 but never saw the field as a Friar. Instead, he went on to become the 2011 World Series MVP with the Cardinals with an All-Star selection and .273 lifetime average.

Yasmani Grandal might be the most recent example. He was a young catcher still finding his way, hitting 15 home runs and .225 in 2014 for the Friars when they shipped him up north to the Dodgers. Since then, Grandal hit 89 home runs in four years in L.A., including 27 in 2016.

Justin Upton only stayed on the Padres for one season, but certainly made an impact. He hit .251 with 26 home runs and a 119 OPS+. Since leaving San Diego, he has been even better, batting .259 and averaging 33 home runs in the two seasons since his departure.

Hopefully, Eric Hosmer does not appear on this list. He may not be shipped out anytime soon but file him under “disappointing” so far.

These all may be just symptoms of a bigger problem. Do players not enjoy playing for the Padres? Is the front office turning players off to staying here long-term or performing at their best? It can’t be the atmosphere, as Petco Park is one of the best ballparks in baseball and the weather is unmatched. There is something amiss here. How can a team be this bad at hitting for so long? This is starting to reach Cleveland-Browns-trying-to-find-a-quarterback level. It’s been just about the same amount of time since the Padres have had an above-average offense. It has been since 1994-1995 that the Padres have strung together two straight seasons of ranking in the top half of the league.

Have the Padres had good players in these years? Of course. It would be an insult to say otherwise. The problems have been sustaining any success they have, and depth in the lineup. The Padres need to find the root cause of this. I am not sure any other team has been this futile at hitting for so long. Sometimes teams even get lucky one or two years, but the Padres haven’t even gotten that. There may be change on the way with young, controllable talent coming in the next few years. However, it’s all lip service until there are measurable results on the field.

This problem is bigger than Petco Park, Andy Green, or the marine layer in San Diego harbor. How does this get fixed? Blow up the entire organization from the grounds crew up to the president? Seems a bit extreme. Hold on to hitters and coaches who seem to be trending in the right direction? That would be more plausible. If I had the right answer, I would be down at 100 Park Blvd. in San Diego, and not typing this in my living room while eating grilled cheese.

At any rate, if the Padres have visions of grandeur in the coming years with all this young talent, something needs to change at the plate that hasn’t been done since Tony Gwynn dug into the left-handed batter’s box every day.

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Nick Lee
Native of Escondido, CA. Lived in San Diego area for 20 years. Padres fan since childhood (mid-90s). I have been writing since 2014. I currently live near Seattle, WA and am married to a Seattle sports girl. I wore #19 on my high school baseball team for Tony Gwynn. I am a stats and sports history nerd. I attended BYU on the Idaho campus. I also love Star Wars.

10 thoughts on “Why Have the Padres Been Terrible At Hitting For Over Two Decades?

  1. No championship pedigree in the organization. Plain and simple, if you can’t have championship mind set, then forget it every year regardless of any acquisitions period!

  2. Great article Nick. You’ve highlighted the whole mess. And this is why I am not entirely optimistic about the future- history is history but its also our present. Prospecting is great and wonderful pretend fun… but this team has an aversion to good coaching or worrying about getting good coaching (which tends to impact player development).

    It also has an aversion to building a respectable roster. The lineup will be crappy as long as veteran sluggers are ignored in free agency and young talent isn’t retained. We’ve excelled in certain past instances because the organization has actually gone after hitters who can hit and attempted to keep players who were in the midst of their good years (till ownership changes). At this point Myers or Hosmer certainly can be decent but they are both non-factors without support in the lineup. Preller would be wise to take a page out of Kevin Tower’s book in this instance. A power bat goes a long way in producing runs and supporting the other parts of the lineup.

    All considered though, this can be a transitional year for the Padres: if Preller actually engages the market in the ways needed. We need a bona fide power bat and two higher end starters, then we can happily look forward to a .500 season (which Preller has been unable to deliver since he started). But this is the Padres, and so far, Preller is addicted to the rest of its history and the mediocrity of players who don’t belong in the bigs. It’s great that some of us out there can dream of contention and all that but as this article pointed out, we’re missing out massively in a few instances. This isn’t a video game folks, you can’t just stockpile all the young talent in the world and suddenly win. There’s several other tangibles and intangibles that have to be addressed. They are not being addressed.

  3. There are two answers here:
    1) garbage in, garbage out. I don’t care if your batting coach is Ted freaking Williams, if he’s got Hosmer and Myers to teach it isn’t going anywhere. You cannot teach monkeys to sing opera.
    2) garbage ownership/management. Fielding a winning team is not something you just turn around and decide to do one day, rolling tubby Ron Fowler out , to show how very little he knows about baseball (one of the least knowledgeable owners), it’s something you commit to every day. You look at any successful organization and there is a commitment to excellence. Part of that is hiring good people and let them do their jobs, not absurdly firing hitting coaches because the GM larded down the roster with crap players.

  4. The hitting theory that is taught throughout the system is flawed. Hitters are taught to take pitches, and to work the count. Many times they are hitting behind in the count. If you are always hitting behind in the count, you are probably not relaxed and are probably over thinking. Pitchers are taught first pitch strike is a pitcher’s best pitch. Many times that first pitch is the best pitch a hitter is going to see. Let hitters relax and trust themselves. Teach hitters to hit the ball where it’s pitched (outside pitch to the opposite field) and situational hitting (hitting behind the runner).

    1. So just hack away? The you get what we have, a decent power, high strikeout, low BA, low OBP mess of a team. Being able to work a count is one of the skills a professional must develop, Gwynn certainly didn’t fear hitting while behind in the count.

  5. Too many reasons to list exist when you think of the lack of continuity over the last 25 years. I’m looking at the positives of winners and trying to believe where I see SD finally “getting it” and following suit.

    1) It has to start at the scouting, drafting, signing, developing level first. Say what you will about “big money” franchises, but the Saux, Yanks, Dodgers, etc. tend to either farm or trade the farm to win. Until Preller, we’ve NEVER taken this approach. This was insanity. Plain and simple. Now, we have capital. Lightyears ahead now. It’s why I applied to be part of the organization in any capacity this past month. There is reason to believe in the possibility of becoming a championship franchise now.

    2) It’s prudent for SD to take a reclamation project on the bump; it simply isn’t in the box. SD, look it up, fills out lineup cards with at least a couple journeyman every season. Look at any winner. The Astros, Cubs, Yanks, Saux, Dodgers, etc. have everyday rosters that are deep and flexible. There are veritable starters ready and willing to come off the bench. This is important in at least 2 ways that kill SD historically: a) injury protection: we HAVE TO be among the least healthy teams in the game every year. Depth helps survive those times, b) strong players protect strong players in the lineup. Anyone frustrated with Hoz…consider the lineup he hit in in 2018. Put Betts or Judge in SD last year by himself…what are you expecting? No team in their right mind is pitching to those guys. The same can be said for the 1 or 2 “names” we’ve had for years. You can’t pencil in a lineup that is – maybe – 3-4 hitters and 4-5 guys who hit (on average) just a tick above the pitcher. What are you expecting?

    3) The instruction is what will make or break it now. Clearly, (Bochy, Black, Roberts, etc.) SD has had more than capable managers, but there doesn’t seem to be much development historically for hitters. Ever. I don’t have knowledge of who or what but I know the Red Sox, Astros, Dodgers, and Cubs have professional hitters…whatever they’re drinking, I want a glass.

    Overall, I never worry about bullpen or even starting pitching. Last year, they clearly weren’t going for it in the front office. You resign Chacin at least if you were. Adding say Kluber and/or Gio and/or Sonny on short contracts…a couple of legit starters and a couple buy lows…give us a chance now and later. The farm will come and room will be made for it. But, that is no reason to lose now.

    We have a lot of guys on the 40 man that… I don’t understand.

    Like it or not, the fortunes rest on management of assets. We’re in a transition from feeling good about unearthing a Hand or Yates to making smart transactions that build a diversified, talented team of depth. There is a difference. I’m really happy with the catching position. Some seem to want to trade one. IF a deal worthy comes up, sure. But, those two (and a vet or Allen) give depth and competition and flexibility. That’s what is needed across the field.

    I am optimistic. How can a Padres fan not be?

  6. Pretty much comes down to poor player acquisition and development.

    Padres have drafted poorly and have been unwilling to spend money on quality free agents.

    Things will probably change within 2-3 years when we see Urias, Tatis, Hosmer, Myers and Cordero all in the same lineup, plus some of these other guys like Naylor, Allen, Rosario, etc.

    1. Doubtful Naylor, Allen, Rosario will be good big league hitters. If they aren’t in MLB’s Top 100 prospects, they probably won’t be good MLB hitters. The one hitter who has a chance you did not mention and is not a Top 100, but he is doing very well and may end up in the Top 100, is Buddy Reed. There are exceptions (Franmil and Franchy could be exceptions) but re-emphasizing your point – player acquisition and development are the key.

      1. To be fair to Naylor, he wasn’t considered “high ceiling” when we plucked him from Florida. Yet, he’s so far hit at every level.

  7. Great article, but I could have bulletpointed it for you:
    *. ownership Is historically not interested in fielding a consistent winner.
    *. With Houston winning the WS, it gave the Padres the ability to say “yeah, that’s what we’re doing too!”
    *. The Padres have historically been the MLBs AAA team/laughingstock.
    *. There’s a lot of stock placed in the quality of the minor leaguers, but I’m convinced this is just more of the same and disappointment awaits.

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