Padres largely average, but in 'The Zone' in one statistic
Padres pitcher Ian Kennedy has 37 strikeouts in 37 innings through Thursday.
By Jeff Sullivan FanGraphs
The Padres are a team that always just kind of blends in. They do little to call attention to themselves, and they seldom excel in any particular category. Right now, they're a few games under .500, close to the race without being actively involved in the race, and they appear set for another season best described as inoffensive.
But there's one area where the Padres have been better than anyone else. One area where the Padres might continue to be at least among the league leaders. It's an area that doesn't get a whole lot of attention, but is gaining traction every month. The Padres have gotten to pitch to the best strike zone in the majors.
I know it sounds strange -- in theory, everybody pitches to the same strike zone. In theory, if everyone's supposed to pitch to the same strike zone, then it seems like not doing that ought to be unsustainable. But this is an area where the Padres have an advantage, and already in 2014 they've derived a substantial benefit.
We have data for every pitch that's been taken (or not swung at) so far this year. Using that data, we can see where strikes are usually called, and where balls are usually called. So for any given distribution of pitches, we can predict how many strikes there should be, based on the league average. But not every pitching staff comes in at the league average.
Below are all 30 teams ranked by extra strikes above or below the expected average:
Given the pitches Padres hurlers have thrown, they have tallied 52 more called strikes than one would expect. So, that's just 52 bonus strikes, which is currently the highest total in the majors. Of course, an extra strike has value compared to a ball. An extra strike isn't worth close to a full run, but it is worth a fraction of a run. Put enough fractions together and a team can end up with something meaningful. For the Padres, the extra strikes have already been worth an estimated seven to eight runs, which sounds small, before realizing it's only been a month.
In part, it's the Padres pitching staff. Some of the pitchers have had pretty good command, so they've been able to get some pitches on the borders. But, presumably, this is mostly about the catchers, which involves the concept of pitch-framing, also known as pitch-receiving. It's been quite popular in analytic circles, to the point where some are sick of talking about it.
What we see is that certain catchers are better than others at preserving strikes in the zone, and getting strikes just outside of it. These catchers are able to catch pitches while keeping their bodies about as motionless as possible. It's always been understood to be a part of the game, but for a while it could never be quantified, and now that we have some data, it looks like both Rene Rivera and Yasmani Grandal are magnificent receivers.
Because Rivera and Grandal can catch well, Padres pitchers can expect to throw to a more favorable zone. So far they've averaged nearly two extra strikes per game, worth about a quarter of a run per game. Contrast that with the Twins, who are in the opposite situation. This isn't as sexy as leading the league in dingers or ERA, but it seems to be an important category and it's a way that the Padres might be able to sneak up on the unsuspecting.
Of course, for the Padres organization, this isn't a coincidence. They didn't just end up with good receivers by chance. They're leading the league in this category by design. From a Corey Brock MLB.com article from March:
If there's been one constant to Nick Hundley's spring, it's his morning video sessions with Padres assistant general manager A.J. Hinch and their discussions about catching mechanics, including pitch framing. [...]
Hinch said this is by no means a new topic, though it's something that's getting attention, especially this past winter, as the organization has looked closely helping their catcher get better mechanically. [...]
There's been more of a focus for us, from [manager Bud Black] to the front office. Because of the 150 or so pitches that we are going to call, execute and receive each game, every one of them we have to work hard on."
The Padres have worked with Hundley and Grandal on their receiving. They acquired Rivera in the first place in large part because of his defensive reputation and skillset. The Rays are the organizational face of the pitch-framing movement, with Jose Molina behind the plate, but they aren't the only organization using the technique to find great value.
So what does this look like? Let's plot the Padres' called strike zone, and compare it to an average zone and the last-place zone. The black box in all three images is just an approximate reference rule-book strike zone.
You can probably spot a few differences, but it's hard to tell with that many data points. Let's break things down for easier consumption. For one thing, the Padres have preserved most of the strikes within the strike zone.
Look at the left and right edges. Isolate the pitches between 1½ and 3½ feet off the ground. Now further isolate the pitches between the lateral strike-zone edges and the lines 15 inches from the center of the plate. Basically, we're looking at pitches off the plate to the left and off the plate to the right. How do the strike rates look?
Padres: 53% Royals: 43% Twins: 38%
The Padres have received strikes on more than half of those pitches, when not swung at. Neither the Royals nor Twins are close. What about low pitches? Here are strike rates on pitches over the plate, between 15 and 24 inches off the ground.
The difference is less pronounced, but it's there. The Padres have also been good at getting low called strikes, and while we're not going to say anything about high called strikes, there aren't very many of those, relatively speaking. Most framing is down around the lateral and lower edges, and that's where the Padres have excelled.
The good receiving, naturally, helps the pitchers, and it'll show up in their pitching numbers. So this is and isn't a hidden advantage -- it's an advantage not everyone knows about, but it's an advantage that's already built into the more familiar data.
Padres pitchers can work the edges and get more strikes, and this helps them not only get more strikes but also pitch away from more dangerous areas. It isn't enough to make the Padres the best team in baseball, and it might not end up enough to make the Padres a playoff team.
What this is, though, is the thing the Padres are best at.
It's the thing they know they're the best at. As mediocre as the Padres might turn out to be, one figures things would only be worse if it weren't for the men catching their pitches.
The Padres have statistical superstars. It's just that few know about the statistics.