The Padres and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year: How San Diego can be good at baseball but bad at winning

Stacked with talent and solid on paper, the 2023 Padres have a 1.3% chance of reaching the postseason

The San Diego Padres entered 2023 with the most obvious type of optimism. Fans were buying up so many tickets so fast that in February, the team capped season-ticket sales. Fresh off an NLCS run, San Diego was looking forward to a full season with … deep breath … Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Josh Hader.

But as it turns out, surveying the riches of the spring was the peak of this Padres season. Following two brutal, walk-off losses to the last-place St. Louis Cardinals, the Padres are 62-72, and the eager fans in San Diego can safely reallocate their playoff ticket funds for other purposes.

The abject failure of general manager A.J. Preller’s latest all-in season puts the Padres in a class with those Cardinals, the New York Mets and the New York Yankees — 2023’s biggest disappointments. Yet there is a crucial and excruciating distinction in the Padres’ case: San Diego’s underlying numbers look pretty good. They have a top-10 offense by wRC+, a top-10 pitching staff by ERA- and a top-five defense by Statcast’s Outs Above Average. The Padres’ starting pitching, headlined by MLB ERA leader Blake Snell, is also top-five by park-adjusted numbers.

Even the most basic of measures — runs scored compared to runs allowed — would nod at a solid, if unspectacular, team. The Padres have a +54 run differential, superior to five National League teams with better actual records, which carries an expected record of 73-61.

Yet despite all the positive indicators — we haven’t even mentioned the breakout of middle infielder Ha-Seong Kim, who should earn down-ballot MVP votes — this team hasn’t touched the .500 threshold since May 11. It hasn’t won four games in a row at any point this year. The Padres have squandered one of their two precious seasons with Soto to such a degree that they currently have the same record as the rebuilding Washington Nationals, who now employ half of San Diego’s former farm system.

“There are a lot of stats we haven’t been able to make much of. Whether it’s run differential, whether it’s overall run prevention, it’s just a lot,” manager Bob Melvin told reporters about a week ago, after another frustrating loss. “Our timing has been horrible. We have not been good in certain facets. Other ones, we’ve been good in, but not good enough to win games.”

It really is a lot, Bob.

The Padres have tumbled into a particular type of bang-your-head-against-the-wall purgatory: They appear to be good at baseball, in all its component parts, but they fail miserably at the actual object of the game. If your TV remote were acting up like the Padres — still making all the lights flash, causing numbers to display on the screen, but not changing the channel — you know what you would do. You’d take the batteries out, put them back in and try again.

In San Diego’s case, deconstructing the calamity certainly won’t change the outcome, but let’s give it a try anyway. Maybe it will be cathartic.

Extra, extra: Padres lose again

The most glaring line on San Diego’s ledger is extra-innings games. They are 0-11, one loss short of the 1969 Montreal Expos’ MLB record for extra-innings futility. Especially in the hyperdrive Manfred Man format of recent years, this is pretty difficult to do.

The Padres’ hitters have accumulated a .160/.246/.240 line across those 11 games. And while that is bad, it isn’t a dealbreaker. The Los Angeles Dodgers, for one, have a worse batting line in extra innings this season. But the Padres have achieved ignominy by pairing the vanishing offense with a bullpen that is simultaneously posting one of the worst extra-innings seasons of all time, allowing opposing hitters to bat .405/.482/.738.

Those 11 losses don’t require much more explanation, but you can unpack them further if you want. In eight of them, at least three of the Tatis-Soto-Machado-Bogaerts group came to bat. Sometimes the stars grounded into outs with the bases loaded. Sometimes they struck out looking. Sometimes they homered, but it didn’t matter because an overmatched reliever gave up too many runs in the top of the inning.

On other occasions, opponents pitched around the stars to reach the soft underbelly of the Padres’ roster and strike out Matt Carpenter on three sweepers down the middle. Or managed to hold 10 Padres batters hitless. Or coaxed the Padres into losing their free runner right away.

Close but never a cigar

The extra-innings issue is part and parcel of the Padres’ broader incompetence in close games. They are an MLB-worst 6-22 in one-run games. No other club has fewer than 11 one-run wins in 2023. If San Diego had won just half of its 28 one-run games, like a normal team, the Padres would be 70-64 and a smidge ahead of the Giants for the third NL wild-card spot going into their four-game series this weekend.

This is a famously flighty category. Last season, the Padres were MLB’s best team in one-run games. This season’s best one-run team, the Miami Marlins, ranked 28th last year. The closest thing 2022 saw to these Padres was the Texas Rangers, who — all right, they’re still pretty bad at one-run games, but they’re much better overall!

For this, there’s plenty of blame to go around, even if it isn’t really actionable. Let’s go through the pain points:

  • Padres relievers have allowed 41% of inherited runners to score (58 of 143), second-worst to the Los Angeles Angels.

  • The bottom half of the Padres’ order has been roughly average overall, but things take a turn in pressurized situations. San Diego’s hitters from No. 5 on have an MLB-worst .208 batting average (and second-worst wRC+) with runners in scoring position. In medium- or high-leverage scenarios, a sample of almost 1,300 plate appearances, that part of the order is batting an MLB-worst .199. It’s very difficult to score runs when more than half the lineup can’t hack it in even the warmth (not to mention real heat) of the moment.

  • Zooming in further, to situations in the seventh inning and beyond in which they’re tied or down by two runs or fewer, the Padres are batting .196/.310/.305 in 545 plate appearances. Jake Cronenworth (63 plate appearances) and Trent Grisham (61 plate appearances) have come up most in that scenario and combined for a .120 AVG, five extra-base hits and 39 strikeouts. Of 11 Padres with at least 20 plate appearances in such situations, only three are batting over .200 (Kim, Soto and Tatis).

Whatever sour impression you get from those numbers in the face of mild adversity, comments from Soto earlier in August accentuate. Following a sweep at the hands of the rising Seattle Mariners, Soto painted a grisly picture of the Padres’ culture.

“Days like this series, we just give up,” he said, per the San Diego Union-Tribune. “Like, literally, we just give up instead of keep grinding, keep pushing. We've got to forget about yesterday and keep moving.”

Josh Hader, a microcosm of the 2023 Padres

Closer Josh Hader’s season of incongruous misfortune deserves his own special exorcism. He has a career-best 1.16 ERA, good for an absurd 354 ERA+, and that’s after allowing Wednesday’s deflating, two-run bomb to Tommy Edman.

Check out this masochistic math magic trick: Hader has appeared in 50 games this year — entering 49 times in the ninth or later and 47 times with San Diego ahead or tied. He has allowed nine total runs, and the Padres have lost 13 of those games.

Three of those runs were the free runner in extras. All of them led to losses. Hader has entered five tie games, been charged with precisely one run in those games, and the Padres have lost all five.

Like Snell — who is lugging an 11-9 record alongside his league-leading ERA — Hader will be a free agent this offseason, and you couldn’t blame him if he feels the need to try on a different uniform to cleanse the bad vibes.

About that run differential

As outlined before, teams that outscore their opponents by 50-plus runs generally don’t have losing records. As the Padres pick up the pieces from the wreck of this season, there are serious questions to answer about whether Preller is the executive to lead the team forward.

Hired in 2014, he has presided over two attention-grabbing, money-gobbling drives for relevance and contention, with a rebuild sandwiched in between. So far, that has produced two seasons over .500 (one of which was the shortened 2020 campaign), two breathtaking collapses, one expensive, hyped team that was dead on arrival and whatever you want to call 2023. Melvin, a proven winner with the Oakland A’s, is Preller’s third manager.

If there’s an argument for team owner Peter Seidler remaining loyal to Preller, a sentiment he professed in his most recent public comments, it lies in that run differential. Only three teams in MLB history have logged worse winning percentages than the 2023 Padres across 134-game spans with run differentials of +50 or better. Those teams — Cleveland in 2006, St. Louis in 1980 and Baltimore in 1967 — all turned into winners the following year, with Cleveland winning its division and Baltimore winning 91 games.

Preller and Seidler, in all their exuberance, might be committed (or doomed) to trying this whole thing again. The duo seem to share an aggressive mindset that fuels the optimism and excitement around the franchise, which has them third in attendance (both overall and per game) in 2023, and perhaps leaves some of the less flashy points of team construction overlooked. With top prospect Jackson Merrill on the doorstep of the Show, the Padres might soon have four star-level, major-league shortstops on a roster that includes zero capable designated hitters or catchers.

Dismantling this core seems unappetizing — and potentially impossible, given the salaries. Steadying the ship for one last run with pre-free-agency Soto in 2024 might be San Diego’s best and only path forward. So burn some sage. Throw salt over your shoulder. The next Padres team might look a lot like this one, for better or worse.

If it’s any consolation, it’s hard to imagine it being worse.