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Franmania

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Yesterday, in an 11–8 Cactus League win over the Rangers, both Franmil Reyes and Francisco Mejía hit home runs. Mejía’s round-tripper was something of a wall-scraper, whereas Reyes’ homer penetrated the mesosphere, clanked off a satellite, and ricocheted through a wormhole, eventually landing somewhere near fifth-century Constantinople. Both counted as one spring training home run. Anyway, yesterday’s outburst from two out of three Frans gave me a good enough excuse to write about the trio.

Francisco Mejía

The negative aspects of Mejía’s game—his defense and his swing-happy approach—have slowly overshadowed his positive attributes, like a lightning quick bat, but this guy can hit. That’s an obvious thing to write about someone who once had a 50-game hitting streak in the minors, of course, but it’s easy to forget since Mejía hasn’t produced to expectations since joining the organization.

In an abbreviated big-league debut last season, both the best and worst of Mejía’s offensive game were on display, as crushed home runs were interrupted by lapses in plate control. And thanks to that aggressive approach, pitchers threw Mejía a strike just 41.4 percent of the time, the sixth-lowest rate in the majors among any batter to see 100 pitches. On the other hand, once Mejía connects, you instantly understand why he’s so eager to swing. He’s got a quick bat and more pop than his 5-foot-10 frame would suggest, giving him the ability to take low-and-inside pitches out of the park. There’s the framework for a good offensive player here, especially at catcher, even if it never comes with a particularly high walk rate.

The defensive side of Mejía’s game is more of a work in progress, and the deficiencies there are highlighted by any comparison to Austin Hedges, one of the game’s finest backstops. Mejía still has strides to make in receiving and various catch-and-throw skills, but the greatest disparity between him and Hedges might come in the unmeasurable ‘handling a pitching staff’ category. Hedges already has game experience with many of the roster’s pitchers, and he also comes with the sort of know-how a catcher only picks up after starting 237 games in the majors. Now that the Padres have recalibrated toward winning, everyone’s realized the importance of a defense-first catcher—especially with a young starting rotation.

Mejía still has an exciting bat, and even if he starts the year in El Paso, he’s likely to end up splitting time with Hedges and perhaps filling in at other positions soon enough. Holding onto both players certainly isn’t a bad option. The last time the Padres had two backstops worth starting, Yasmani Grandal and Rene Rivera gave San Diego the best catching duo in the game.

Franmil Reyes

Reyes and Hunter Renfroe tend to get lumped together, and it’s true—they’re similar players. They’re both right-handed sluggers with average-to-plus bats and middling gloves in an outfield corner (Wil Myers is similar enough, as well). I like Reyes better, though, simply because he’s shown a better approach than Renfroe, plus the ability to adjust more quickly. We covered Reyes’ improvement in some detail last year, but as a refresher, check out his performance in 2018 broken into two parts:

Time FramePAOPSBB%K%
May 14-June 2096.7174.240.6
July 11-Sept. 30189.90210.621.7

Despite showing some power, Reyes was overmatched in that first taste of the majors last season. He had four walks to 39 strikeouts in 96 plate appearances. He was sent back to El Paso, recalled in July, and then demoted and promoted once more. The final version of Reyes that emerged in August was a different beast altogether; the power stuck but the whiffs and patience both took major steps in the right direction, making him the Padres best hitter.

Even in Renfroe’s best months, he’s shown lingering signs of a subpar approach. In August of last season, Renfroe posted a .935 OPS and popped nine home runs, but he had four walks and 24 strikeouts. In his career in September, Renfroe’s rocking a .918 OPS with a 4.9 percent walk rate. Renfroe’s made some strides of his own, and he deserves playing time, but his boom-or-bust style could cap the upside. Reyes is four years younger and has already shown a different gear with the bat.

Franchy Cordero

We may have to just come to grips with Franchy Cordero, human blooper reel. If Vegas made odds on such things (they probably do), Cordero might be the favorite to pull the next Jose Canseco, bopping a would-be fly out over the fence with his head. Then again, Cordero’s already survived a blown no-hitter, circuitous routes in the outfield, and a 51-error minor-league season (at shortstop) because he possesses a tantalizing mix of tools, which has kept the Padres believing in him, through good and bad, for the better part of this decade.

It’s not like Cordero’s a complete mess out there, either. In the outfield, his speed allows him to outrun some of his bad routes. And at the plate, like Reyes, he’s shown off power rivaled by few players in the organization. The ball just travels when Cordero makes good contact, even when he seemingly doesn’t get all of it.

Last year, Cordero cut his strikeout rate almost nine percentage points from 2017, but it still sat at 35.7 percent. That’s too high for a player who doesn’t walk much and hasn’t shown the ability to provide lots of value in the field or on the bases. Between 34 games combined in the Dominican Republic this winter and so far in Arizona, Cordero’s posted a 34.3 percent strikeout rate, showing little progress on an important flaw.

In the end, Cordero has enough raw tools to become an effective player in multiple ways. If he doesn’t clean up the plate approach and swing-and-miss tendencies, harnessing his speed would at least salvage a career as a good fourth outfielder. If the footspeed never leads to much tangible value, cutting the strikeout rate to under 30 percent would allow the raw power to play. If he does both, well, look out. Cordero’s no sure thing to put it all together, but the speed/power combo should afford him more time to try. There’s star potential here and enough past production to keep dreaming on. 

Revisiting 1994

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The 1991 Super Bowl is my first sports memory, but I don’t actually recall watching a single play—not even the missed field goal by Bills kicker Scott Norwood at the end of the game. What I think I remember is my parents, with some family and friends, watching the game. Mostly, I remember my dad’s reaction after the miss (luckily, he was a Giants fan). I was three years old.

After that game, I’m not sure any sports moment stands out so vividly in my mind until the middle of the decade—maybe Michael Johnson’s gold shoes in the 1996 Olympics, or the Packers losing any number of playoff games to the Cowboys, or Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak in 1995. I didn’t really become a sports fan until I was seven or eight.  

All of this is to say that I don’t much remember the 1994 baseball season, or the strike that ended it on August 12. Nevertheless, that season’s always taken on some level of mystique in my mind, like it has for many other baseball fans. Just what could have been?

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QB Power Rankings: October 15, 2018

What follows is the most ambitious attempt to evaluate the modern quarterback, a decades-in-the-waiting synthesis of technology and expert scouting to isolate the performance of the QB from that of his team.

Just kidding. This is the debut of my QB Power Rankings, a subjective but hopefully (mildly) informative ranking of the best at the position right now. The goal is not to pick a quarterback for one game or for the long run; it’s essentially who I’d want for the rest of this season.

(To be eligible, the QB must have attempted at least 20 passes in the NFL so far in 2018 and not be injured for the season. Jimmy Garoppolo would rank somewhere in the 11-15 range if healthy.)

  1. Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

Rodgers takes home the No. 1 spot in the debut of this series, but it’s a tenuous hold. Thanks to a combination of injuries to himself, suspect talent around him, and the conservative offensive schemes and play calling of his head coach, Mike McCarthy, Rodgers hasn’t quite been in peak form in years. Of course, off peak form for Rodgers is still pretty good: this season, without full health, he’s throwing for over 300 yards per game with 10 touchdowns and one interception. No QB combines Rodgers’ athleticism, arm strength, accuracy, and decision making.

  1. Tom Brady, New England Patriots

Brady already has six interceptions in just six games this season; that’s just two fewer than he had all of last year. He put up 43 points last night without an INT, just narrowly outdueling Patrick Mahomes. He’s okay.

  1. Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints

Brees has all kinds of talent around him. Alvin Kamara might be the most explosive running back in the league, and Michael Thomas is quickly rising up the wide receiver ranks. With the help—and New Orleans’ fast home track—Brees is reinventing the position at 39 years of age. He’s completed 77.9 percent of his passes this season while averaging 8.7 yards per pass—and he’s yet to throw a pick.

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Tiger Woods: Almost Back

Tigers Woods finally did it.

After five years of turmoil and setbacks, either on the course or off it, he won a golf tournament. It wasn’t necessarily a real tournament, of course. The Tour Championship features 30 of the best golfers in the world, but its field size pales in comparison to normal PGA events, which often consist of 100-plus golfers. In fairness, while Woods got to dodge Jordan Spieth and other potential upsetters, he did face off against the likes of Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas, and a host of others.

Potential asterisks aside, Woods’ win was viewed almost universally as a great Sports Moment—even for a contrarian curmudgeon like me, watching him walk up 18 in front of a mob of fans brought back some feels. I’ve always had a touch-and-go relationship with Tiger, never fully buying into the frenzy. My hesitance has generally had less to do with him—though he’s done his part—than the people who root most ardently for him. Cryogenically frozen since the late ‘90s and released back into the wild this year, they all seem to wear a Titleist hat, talk incessantly about the comparative advantages of different golf balls, and be exactly 40 years old.

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Checking in on Luis Urias

This is a free preview of June 29th’s Newsletter. Consider signing up for a subscription over on the right sidebar if this is your jam. (Or just subscribe to The Athletic San Diego, where my writing can also be found). 

Part two of the two-part Twitter mailbag incoming in five . . . four . . . three . . . ahh, what the heck, here it is:

@jefftsdHow about a compare and contrast of Urias’ 2018 YTD numbers vs. his 2017 numbers? Is his 2018 so far a step backwards, normal growing pains, or do you think his numbers are OK? Just an idea, I don’t remember you recently covering the topic.

Good topic. Just to get the particulars out of the way, Luis Urias is 21 years old and currently playing (mostly) second base at Triple-A El Paso. Through 321 plate appearances, he’s slashing .268/.377/.408 with a 112 wRC+.

The place to start with Urias is the strikeouts, I think. After walking more than he whiffed in every season going into this one, Triple-A pitching has caught up to Urias. He has 64 strikeouts to 43 walks after striking out just 65 times all of last season. The walks aren’t a problem—Urias is actually walking at a career-high 13.4 percent clip, an impressive number given the age and level.

The early concern is that strikeout rate, which has ballooned this season. Going into this year, Urias had an 8.8 percent K rate in his professional career, the stuff of a bat-to-ball legend. This year? It’s at 19.9 percent. As mentioned, Urias is just 21 and at Triple-A, so an increase in whiffs was expected. But even last year, as a 20-year-old at Double-A (and in a tougher hitter’s environment), Urias only K’ed in 12.4 percent of his PAs. It’s not like he needed a bunch of time to adjust to Double-A last season, either; through the first three months of 2017, his K rate was lower than his seasonal mark, at 11.5 percent.

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Horsin’ Around

The wait is finally over. For the first time in three years, horse racing has a Triple Crown winner. Justify, bred in Kentucky and trained by Bob Baffert, coasted to a Belmont Stakes win on Saturday, June 9, wrapping up his quest for the first Triple Crown since the Baffert-trained American Pharoah’s successful bid way back in 2015.

Call me an old fogey, but I long for the days when Triple Crowns just didn’t happen. After Affirmed won the Triple Crown in 1978—the third one of the 1970s, mind you—no horse turned the trick until American Pharoah. Over that 37-year stretch, however, 13 different horses won the first two legs, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, but came up short in the Belmont. Those failed bids—and Tom Durkin’s accompanying calls—remain some of the sport’s most exciting moments.

Over that long Triple Crown drought, the feat loomed tantalizingly close but ultimately felt impossible. Would we ever have another Triple Crown winner, many wondered, as the disappointments mounted. Horses aren’t bred to run the testing mile-and-a-half distance of the Belmont, and they aren’t prepared to win three races in roughly a month, they said. Part of the enjoyment of Triple Crown season came from wondering if each new Kentucky Derby winner could finally be the one to break the crownless streak (or in what manner they’d inevitably come up short in the Belmont).

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The Conflicting Priorities of Andy Green

During yesterday’s game, Andy Green made a curious move. Trailing 5–1 in the third inning, Green pulled a double-switch, removing Manuel Margot from center and putting Matt Szczur in his place. The move perhaps made a touch of strategic sense—it moved the pitcher’s spot from ninth to eighth in the lineup, so new hurler Robbie Erlin didn’t have to bat until the bottom of the fifth. Still, it was super early for a double-switch; avoiding a low-leverage at-bat from the pitcher’s spot in the third inning is hardly a needle-mover. If you believe Margot is a better player than Szczur, you can’t remove him in the third for a double-switch. (And if you don’t, perhaps Szczur should have just started the game.)

Without an easy-to-explain injury—one apparently wasn’t mentioned after the game—the move just didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it perhaps highlighted a difference in priorities between Green and the Padres front office.

The question about who’s better between Margot and Szczur right now is possibly an open one, but we can probably all agree on one thing: Margot has a future in the organization and Szczur does not—at least not unless he’s willing to drop his spare outfielder gig for one as a roving instructor. And even if the switch might have made some sense from a win expectancy standpoint—not a given, by the way—it just didn’t jibe in the big scheme of things. The Padres were facing a left hander and a bad team, and Margot, so long as he’s on the team, should get as many at-bats as is reasonable. Starting him and then removing him after one plate appearance isn’t doing anybody any good.

Of course, if Green is doing everything he can to squeeze an extra point of win expectancy out of a thin roster, maybe it’s hard to blame him.

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