Padres Month in Review: April 2006

Sunday’s highly improbable comeback victory over the Dodgers to close the month notwithstanding, the Padres’ April showing was undeniably miserable. There were implosions by members of the rotation and bullpen, collisions in the outfield, and, of course, Operation Shutdown by the offense at Petco Park. Combined, they led to a 9-15 record, the Padres’ worst in April since 1997, when the club had the same mark en route to a 76-86 season.

A few things went right: We got a pretty good glimpse at what kids such as Josh Barfield and Adrian Gonzalez can do (as well as a reminder that they are still kids and will struggle at times); we saw Khalil Greene take a much more disciplined approach at the plate (with admittedly mixed results so far); we saw Woody Williams and Scott Cassidy step up and establish themselves as key members of the pitching staff; and we got a sense that Chris Young and, to a lesser extent, Clay Hensley should have a home in the Padres’ rotation for some time.

Hitting Woes: Petco Park and Magadan

Of course, when you’re losing more than 60% of your games, there’s a good chance that a lot more is going wrong than right, and this seems to be the case with the Padres. First and foremost, the offense has been atrocious. It’s particularly pronounced at home, where the club came within three outs of being swept by three different division rivals in the month, but the truth is, they’re not hitting anywhere. The Padres finished April last in the big leagues in (deep breath) R/G, HR, BA, OBP, SLG, OPS, RC27, and ISO.

Some are calling for the head of hitting coach Dave Magadan. This is hardly a surprising response — If things aren’t working, then surely someone is to blame and must be held accountable. That said, there are four questions we need to consider before rushing to judgment, one way or the other, regarding Magadan:

  1. If a hitting coach wields a significant amount of influence over the performance of his charges — particularly veterans who have a track record and presumably understand what their job entails and how to do it — then why isn’t he paid as much as the hitters he is supposed to be coaching?
  2. If the hitting coach’s presence is not such a significant factor, then why aren’t the players held accountable for their own performance? Shouldn’t they be fired for not performing to expectations?
  3. If the hitting coach must be fired, then who will replace him? You can’t just fire someone without having a plan to improve things. I mean, you can — it happens all the time; but there’s a word for that. Hint: it starts with “s” and rhymes with “tupid.”
  4. How long would any new hitting coach be given to “make the players perform” (as if he could “make” them do anything) before meeting the same fate as his predecessor?

Magadan has had a good track record with the Padres. Or perhaps it’s more precise to say that the Padres have done well during Magadan’s tenure. For that matter, most of the hitters have a decent track record. The most likely scenario is that a bunch of guys are slumping right now. The majority of them will bounce back toward career norms, with some of the younger guys possibly taking a step forward, and some of the older guys taking a step back. Why? Because that’s just how it works.

Magadan shouldn’t take the fall now, nor should he be hailed as a savior when his hitters regress to the mean. He is what he is — a professionally competent hitting coach: no more, no less. That may not be very exciting or sensational, but it’s the truth.

So the offense should take care of itself. And if it doesn’t, there probably isn’t much — short of bringing in new hitters to replace the current crop — that Magadan or anyone else can do about it.

Who Is Going to Petco Park, and Why Aren’t They Padres Fans?

A more troublesome development is that attendance is down at Petco Park. The Padres averaged 37,531 their first year, 35,400 their second, and just 32,193 through the first month of their third. The fact that some notable Padres hitters have complained publicly about their home park and its effect on offense has led to a few potential problems. Beyond its possible impact on attracting top free-agent hitters and on team morale (conceding defeat before engaging in battle is a poor strategy for motivating folks or actually succeeding at something), it can create a perception in the minds of fans that boring baseball is played at Petco Park.

When the home team is winning, “boring” is tolerable — a necessary by-product of success. When that same team is losing — especially in a city as beautiful as San Diego, where there are countless other ways to spend money and leisure time — “boring” is a compelling reason to find something else to do. And often folks who find something else to do never come back.

This leads to another problem. A lot of people who live in San Diego aren’t from here. Sure, they might call it home, but there’s no real connection to the region. This is why you’ll hear ex-New Yorkers complain about the pizza even after having lived here for 20 years (which is even more annoying than hearing someone refer to our state as “Cali,” but I digress).

Anyway, what you end up with is this:

  • San Diegans who have better things to do than watch the home team play “boring” baseball.
  • Folks from other parts of the country who are excited to see their team come into town for a few games.

I don’t want to overstate matters, but it sucks going to a game at a beautiful ballpark, in a beautiful city, where there’s a real good chance you’ll be outnumbered by frequently obnoxious fans of the other team. It sucks so much, in fact, that it potentially keeps folks from coming out to support the home club. The net effect is that not only are crowds getting smaller, they are getting more hostile toward the home team as well. I have no numbers to support this, I’m just telling you what I see and hear at Petco. And I don’t know what, if any, effect “home crowd” hostility might have on players — as a fan, I hate it, but I’m not paid millions to block that stuff out — but if it does impact them, do you suppose this could be a deterrent to potential free agents as well?

Continuity Problems

I suspect we’re also witnessing one of the risks of turning over much of a team’s roster. If you’re losing with familiar names and faces, then maybe it makes sense to stick it out a bit longer and see if the guys can pull through. With so many new players, some folks (not all, but some) might not be as patient with a group in which they haven’t invested nearly as much on an emotional level. In other words, the general attitude might be one of, “Yeah, the Padres are losing — so what; who the heck is Mike Cameron, anyway?”

When there is so much change over a single off-season, it brings an expectation that you are making the ballclub better than last year’s version. And when the results aren’t immediately evident, that can lead to disappointment (or worse). But again, this is a risk of bringing in a bunch of new guys. And note that this risk doesn’t make it a bad strategy. With the exception of the Mark Loretta for Doug Mirabelli trade (which is mitigated somewhat by the emergence of Barfield and the apparent decline of Loretta) and the failure to re-sign Mark Sweeney, I can’t find fault with any of the moves the Padres made.

For all my whining about Xavier Nady, once the team had determined not to play him every day, it made absolute sense to move him for a resource (legitimate center fielder) they desperately needed. The Rangers trade was a no-brainer. And even though I didn’t like it at the time, I could at least understand the thought process behind the deal with Washington. Ramon Hernandez? Sure, I’d love to see him still in San Diego, but not with anything close to the contract Baltimore gave him.

The point is that if the Padres had kept last year’s team intact, they probably wouldn’t be doing any better than they are now, but folks might be a little more patient with them. (Then again, folks might wonder why the Padres didn’t do more to address their weaknesses.) Change leads to an expectation of improvement; when that doesn’t happen right away, it leads to disillusionment. It leads to a lot of second-guessing and eventually even apathy, which is about the worst thing that can happen in sports (ask Barry Bonds).

Condensed Version, Please

Okay, so to pull ourselves back together a bit: April stunk. The hitters didn’t hit, the pitchers didn’t pitch, the Padres played poorly at Petco Park in front of smaller and (seemingly) more hostile crowds. On the plus side, they got to see what some of the franchise’s future could do at the big-league level and finished the month on an up note with a snatch ‘em back win against the Dodgers that was reminiscent of last September’s victory against Washington.

Also, the Pads are now entering May, which was their best month in 2005 and pretty much the reason they won the NL West last year. Although it’s unreasonable to expect the Padres to duplicate their success from a year ago, in this division, which will be lucky to see even one team win as many as 85 games, they shouldn’t have to. If the Pads can start executing with more consistency and just gain a little ground in May, they’ll be on the right track. And that’s all anyone can ask.