At Least the Burgers Were Delicious

Stopped at Elsinore, overlooking empty ballpark. Sipping coffee, chewing on Posnanski’s advice to stay humble as a writer…

Don’t preconceive. Don’t hesitate to ask questions that might make you look dumb. Don’t linger too long in your comfort zone.

Bearing this in mind, I ask a question: “With one quarter of the season behind us, what has surprised you most about the 2011 Padres?”

The responses are varied: sloppy defense, Mat Latos’ struggles, Brad Hawpe’s inconsistency, team’s poor play at home…

* * *

The defense troubles me. I am told that the numbers aren’t bad, that there are metrics showing the Padres’ fielding hasn’t changed much from last year. Those numbers haven’t watched Chase Headley bounce throws to first, Hawpe fail to corral said throws, or Eric Patterson look surprised by baseballs headed his way at multiple positions.

Anecdotal evidence may be anecdotal, but it’s still evidence. And even some of the numbers indicate that all may not be well. It is unhip to cite fielding percentage, but the fact that the Padres’ is lower than all but the two teams in Texas disturbs me. At some point, you need to convert batted balls into outs.

Unearned runs? Not a fan:

Year   R  ER UER UER%
2009 769 704  65  8.5
2010 581 549  32  5.5
2011 178 153  25 14.0

This makes me sound old, which I am. Chronic condition, getting worse every day. No cure.

Latos’ struggles could be related to last year’s workload, which thanks to the Padres’ refusal to bow out of the NL West race until the season’s final day was heavier than planned. His struggles also could be a part of the process that gets him from “dominant for three months at a time” to bona fide ace. Two steps forward, one step back.

We don’t know, won’t know, can’t know until later. The damning thing about the future is that it hasn’t happened yet, which is also its charm.

* * *

Burgers at Barstow… The once thriving outlet mall is gasping its final breaths, clinging to the desperate hope of life on the outskirts of nowhere. Beyond the mall, street signs line the main road, marking dirt paths on a grid that someone once imagined would contain more than dirt paths. The paths are as enigmatic and pointless as Patterson’s in the outfield.

If you look hard enough, you begin to see metaphors for abandoned hope in everything. Paradoxically, this renews hope. We are all in a perpetual state of decay. This is our common link. But hey, the burgers are delicious.

I think about Hawpe a lot these days. It’s an obsession that borders on unhealthy, but I admire the quiet dignity with which he handled this season’s horrendous start even as he worked to improve. Reminiscent of Kevin Kouzmanoff’s demeanor in 2007.

Quiet dignity. That is an underrated skill.

I enjoy watching Hawpe’s offensive numbers climb (.244/.300/.353 at last check — late model David Eckstein), although I wonder how long he can sustain appreciable success with his current approach. The numbers look better than they did a few weeks ago, but they can’t tell that he still fouls good fastballs — assuming he hits them at all — off to the left.

I am reminded that much of Hawpe’s surge has come while playing in hitter-friendly ballparks. The game-winning homer he launched last week at Coors Field, which has been kind to Hawpe and almost every other hitter on the planet, came on a misplaced changeup. Catch too much plate with slow stuff and he’ll hammer it. As battle cries go, that’s not the most inspiring one I’ve heard.

Is Hawpe’s resurgence legitimate or, as Jason Collette suggests, is it merely a “dead-cat bounce”? We can’t know until later, but I watch the swing and have concerns.

I pull for Hawpe despite my understanding that he is a stopgap solution, a replaceable part. There’s another chronic condition, another common link. We are all stopgap solutions, replaceable parts. But what else is there to do?

* * *

A light drizzle falls just south of Baker, home to one freakishly tall thermometer. I can’t make out the temperature from here, but car says 74 F, which is merciful for this area.

One time, about 20 years ago, I stopped in Baker for gas. Paid by credit card. Attendant asked if I was related to Clyde Young or some such. “Sorry,” I said, knowing that Young is one of the most common surnames on the planet. He shrugged his shoulders and sent me on my way. What else is there to do?

The drizzle subsides, yielding to giant cumulus clouds that cast island-sized shadows across the desert floor. How do we know when we are past our prime, when it is time for us to be replaced? We have slumped before and recovered, why not now? We can’t know until later, but the threat looms like clouds across a dream. We shrug our shoulders and go on our way. If our swing is too slow, we will find out soon enough.

* * *

Listening to Greg Laswell croon, “Climb into my dreams and leave nothing.” The Padres’ struggles at home trouble me. Who among us hasn’t struggled at home?

We arrive at Vegas in time for dinner. I pause near the sports book to watch the Padres for a moment. Dustin Moseley holds a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning. Patterson and Chris Denorfia start taking creative but enigmatic paths to fly balls. Outfielders are judged by their ability to track and catch baseballs, not the creativity of their paths. Soon the Padres are losing again at home. I shrug my shoulders and go on my way. Patterson is replaceable. So is Denorfia. So am I.

* * *

The Diamondbacks have recalled Sean Burroughs from Triple-A. The Padres’ former first-round pick has been out of baseball since 2007 and now is here again. The world is a funny place, but it’s all we have.

The defense will improve. Orlando Hudson will regain health and spare us from having to watch Patterson at second base. Cameron Maybin (whose performance Ken Funck calls a legitimate breakthrough) will do the same and spare us from having to watch Patterson in center field.

Headley will stop bouncing throws. Hawpe will discover how to pick balls out of the dirt. And if not, at least the burgers were delicious.

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36 Responses »

  1. I probably actually watch the Padres play less than anyone here … and so perhaps I never got over how stunningly good Adrian’s defense was (and I assume still is) … so … with respect to Chase’s bounced throws … I wonder if they were there before, but not as noticable simply because of Adrian? Seems possible, based on my very limited observations …

  2. Twenty years ago I spent the night in Baker at the Golden Cholla Hotel, just behind the Bun Boy restaurant, after wrecking my truck a few miles north on I-15. Both places may be defunct by now, are defunct if there is any truth to capitalism. To call them dumps would be to insult dumps.

    Having a hard time coming to grips with the 2011 Padres. In many past bad seasons I’ve focused on the fact that we may at least learn something about possible future contributors. Not sure what we’re learning right now, or if what we’re learning is worth the service time we’re burning.

    For all the laments about the offense, and it was terrible for several weeks that each seemed to last 11 days, it’s closer to average right now than the starting pitching. The average NL OPS+ is 94, we’re at 90. Average ERA+ is 102; our starters average is 83, with only Moseley over 100. The pen has been dominant again, but more than half our innings are being thrown by guys with ERA+ numbers well below the norm. That may be the biggest surprise to me. It seems that the bats have taken time to warm up in past seasons, but the struggles of the SP seem worse than usual.

  3. @Tom Waits – We are learning that Jed robbed FLA in the Maybin deal, Buddy would rather play two MIFs hitting under the Mendoza line instead of his second basemen of the future, Kyle Phillips is probably not a MLB catcher and that Ryan Ludwick, Jason Bartlett and Brad Hawpe are all in fact Major league hitters outside of Petco.

  4. @Steve C – Assuming you’re referring to Forsythe, he’s not the second baseman of the future. At best, he’s the utility infielder of the future.

  5. I just don’t understand why Eric Patterson played instead of Forsythe. Any insight on why Forsythe sat on the bench for a couple of weeks?

  6. And without saying that Hawpe is all the way back, he does have a line of .259/.333/.481 at home in May. Obviously, he’s hitting much better on the road, but he’s also been hitting well at PETCO.

  7. @Ray – Tongue in cheek…

  8. @Kramerica – Black is slowly turning into Bochey! Just imagine if Gwynn was still on the team Maybin would have 25 ABs at this point 15 of which would be pinch hits.

  9. @Ray and Steve

    That’s selling Forsythe at least a little short. Middle infielders — well, second baseman,
    because he’s not playing shortstop — who can give you 100 OPS+ production aren’t all that common. His skills and tools are similar to Mark Loretta, who was usually a valuable player even outside his two monster years in San Diego.

    I can understand playing Patterson in CF much more than at 2b, but even then the 2b opportunities went to Gonzalez, and that’s fine. Looking back maybe they shouldn’t have promoted Forysthe at all, but they might have been worried about Bartlett’s health and thus Gonzalez’ availability to play second.

  10. TW … you made me look it up … http://www.yelp.com/biz/bun-boy-restaurant-baker … some folks love sub-dumps, I s’pose … or prolly they’re just from LA :-)

  11. @Tom Waits – Forsythe’s promotion makes me think that the Padres don’t view him as the 2B of the future, why take away ABs from him in AAA to have him sit on the Bench in the majors and watch sub .200 hitters play in his place.

  12. I think too much has been read into Forsythe’s call up in general. Had Hudson (and Cabrera) stayed healthy, Forsythe would never have left Tucson. As it is, he joined the big league team because they needed depth. And I’m not surprised that Black went with the guys he already had. If you want to get mad at anyone for that one, get mad at Hoyer for putting together such a crappy bench.

    Getting mad at Hoyer for putting together such a crappy bench probably deserves its own discussion, if we were to really get into it.

  13. @Steve

    Don’t see that at all. It’s a couple of weeks of missed at-bats. Cabrera and Hoffpauir were hurt, the other AAA options aren’t on the 40 man roster. They gave Forsythe a little reward, stocked some emergency depth on the major league roster, and didn’t risk anybody to a waiver claim to make way for Newhan/Cintron/Guzman/Hudson. That’s enough to explain it to me.

  14. Am I the only one that thinks Headley should be moved to second base once Hudson leaves? He seems to be athletic enough to handle the range of a second baseman and his hitting profile would be just fine for a second baseman. The Padres are gonna have to do something with Darnell and Gyorko chomping at the bit. Darnell is arguably ready now and I could see Gyorko being ready in 2012.

  15. @PadresFuture

    I don’t think Headley has anything like the range or athleticism to play 2nd well.

    He’s at a 114 OPS now. If he can keep his offense above the 105 mark (hopefully 110, NL average is typically around 95), with his defense, that’s plenty valuable. He may get too expensive anyway, based on his Super 2 status, so he won’t be playing anywhere in a Padre uniform.

    Darnell may no’t project for all that much more offense, if any. He’s killing it for the Missions, but so did Headley. Darnell’s D is problematic. Maybe Gyorko will give us the offense we’ve missed at 3b since Nevin, but we’ll have a better idea once he leaves the Cal League.

  16. I think Darnell being a RHB with power gives me a little more hope for his success than Headley. Headley, for all intents and purposes is a LHB, without enough power to conquer Petco. His OPS+ is nice, if he were a leadoff hitter.

  17. Headley’s 1.1 WAR so far this season ranks him 5th in major league 3rd basemen. He’s not the problem. That OPS+ is nice regardless of position; much better that than a “power” guy like Mark Reynolds, killing the offense with his OBP while hitting the occasional homer.

    I’ve always been a big Darnell fan since we drafted him, but I question whether his total offensive package really projects to that much more than Headley. Hopefully the answer is yes, but then you have to factor in how much he’ll give back on defense. If he doesn’t improve there we may be talking about how his offense projects to left field.

  18. Biggest surprise? That this team which has performed so poorly is only 5.5 games out of first place.

  19. @TW, its not the position that matters to me, it is him batting 3rd. I would like more “S” in the OPS from my #3 hitter than he is giving us. His .380+ OBP with sub-.400 slugging is better suited for leadoff than a spot in the order expected to drive in runs. In my opinion, when analyzing a players statistics, sometimes a little too much emphasis is put on getting on base and not enough on making contact and driving the ball. Drawing a walk is nice, but you gotta hit the ball and hit it with authority sometimes, instead of setting up a double-play.

  20. It’s not Headley’s fault that Bud doesn’t know how to use him.

  21. Two things:

    1. Headley vs Darnell is a bit of a moot point since Headley will out price himself out of a $40 Million payroll next season. Having an option like Darnell in the minors just makes the decision of positional asset allocation easier for the front office.

    2. We can all agree Headley is a good hitter and infact he is your ideal #2 hitter (why budbot hits him 3rd and sometimes 4th is beyond me) the argument is more that traditionalists think that your 3B has to be a power hitter which Headley is not. To me production is production and you have to be an extreme power hitter to maintain any kind of consistency at Petco and there are few out there that can do that (just ask Ryan Ludwick).

  22. TW-
    I seem to recall question marks about Headley’s defense when he was getting ready to break into the majors.

    Steve-
    A team doesn’t need power at 3B if they have guys like Hanley Ramirez at SS and Dan Uggla at 2B. The reason that “tradionalists” think 3B needs power is because “traditionally” you don’t get a lot of power from the positions that require more athleticicm, e.g. ss, cf, 2B. The Padres only have one guy in the lineup that has a chance at hitting a .500 slugging clip, Ludwick. So this team does need more power or they simply won’t drive in players like Headley that draw walks and hit singles. If the Padres can not afford Headley then they should trade him while they can and put Cantu at 3B until they are comfortable with giving Darnell a full time shot.

  23. @PadresFuture

    There aren’t just questions about Darnell’s defense. He’s consistently among league leaders in errors, and not in the Ryan Zimmerman “he gets to a lot more balls than normal” sense. Darnell has the tools to be a better defender than he is, but it hasn’t happened yet.

    When Headley was getting ready to break into the majors, it was as a LF, and the defensive concerns were valid. Coming through the minors at 3b the reports were that he might only be average, not that he’d be swiss cheese. I don’t recall anything even close to “the bat will play but the glove won’t” like we’ve heard about Darnell.

    Darnell absolutely could get better, but if he doesn’t, his contributions to the Padres may be based on his cost than his production vis-a-vis Chase.