It was easy to overlook the Padres in the springtime. After all, their most recognizable face, Adrian Gonzalez, doubles as their only legitimate bat and he spent the offseason popping up in various trade rumors. The rest of the lineup and the pitching staff was filled with various unknowns -- not in the sense that the Padres had no idea who was playing where, but in the sense that nobody had reason to know about these guys. Projecting anything but a last-place finish seemed optimistic.
As we near June, the Padres are not only out of the cellar, but actually way up in the attic. So, how are they doing it?
For one, the Padres’ rotation leads the league in xFIP, meaning they own the aspects their pitchers can control -- namely strikeouts, walks and getting ground balls. It’s not just the defense-free parts of pitching the Padres have succeeded at, though. Clayton Richard and Jon Garland have sub-3 ERAs and former top prospect Mat Latos isn’t too far behind. The team's pitching staff has been the best in baseball for the first two months of the season.
In addition to pitching well, The Padres’ staff also maintains the third-lowest batting average on balls in play throughout the league.
That kind of success is a credit to the Padres’ stellar defense and the cavernous ballpark they play in. David Eckstein is no longer a shortstop with a weak arm, but one of the more range-blessed second basemen around. Chase Headley is back at third base and ranks second on the team in ultimate zone rating, UZR, the number of runs above or below average a player allows at his position. Even the Padres’ center-field platoon of Tony Gwynn and Scott Hairston is excelling defensively despite sharing playing time. Those parts combine with the rest of the team to form the unit that ranks second in UZR and first in defensive runs saved in the league.
The one group of players that was expected to excel for the Friars was their bullpen. Sure enough, the Padres’ relief corps has also been the best in baseball, turning games into six inning affairs and converting nearly every lead the team gets into a victory. Closer Heath Bell has led the way, but unheralded setup men such as Luke Gregerson and Mike Adams have each been lights out as well. The Padres bullpen is both deep and talented, and has given Bud Black numerous options with which to shut down opposing hitters in close games.
Perhaps we should have seen the Padres success coming after all. Given the recent success of teams like Tampa Bay and Seattle in past years, this is hardly the first time a young rotation with a stellar bullpen and excellent defense has surpassed expectations.
R.J. Anderson is a contributor to FanGraphs.