Tuesday, February 17, 2015

How Will Petco Affect New Padres?

Petco's a gem of a ballfield, but I wouldn't want to hit there (ItinerantFan)
After fielding the weakest-hitting team in baseball last year, the San Diego Padres went out and made several high-profile moves over the winter to revamp their offense. Now, after adding three All-Stars and a former Rookie of the Year—none of whom are older than 30—they’ve built what might be the scariest lineup in the National League.

That is, until you factor in their home park. It’s the reason everyone’s expecting San Diego’s new ace, James Shields, to still be great at 33 (despite the fact that he's thrown a zillion innings). It’s also the reason their fearsome-looking offense might be closer to pedestrian than a modern day murderer’s row.

Petco Park is where hitting goes to die. In fact, Petco has hurt scoring more than any other park over the past three years, suppressing runs by 17 percent. It plays tougher on righties than lefties, and all of the new Padres bat from the right side. Obviously that doesn’t bode well for San Diego.

But while Petco isn’t going to help any position player’s numbers, it probably won’t hurt the new Padres as much as one might think. With the exception of Will Middlebrooks, they’ve all posted outstanding stats in the past despite playing in difficult hitting environments. Since they did it before and are still relatively young, it stands to reason they can do it again.

Derek Norris comes from Oakland, for instance, which had the fifth-worst run environment of American League parks over the past three years and suppressed righthanded home runs by 10 percent. Even so, he put up an .801 OPS there–145 points better than his road OPS. If Norris could mash in Oakland’s cavernous coliseum, then he should be fine in spacious Petco.

FanGraphs’ projection systems (Steamer and ZiPS) don’t agree, as they have him losing about 50 points off last year’s OPS. That seems odd given that he’s 26, an age when players traditionally peak. While Petco might prevent him from taking a step forward, it shouldn’t cause him to take a major step back. Based on his production the last two years, the Padres should get double digit homers and a .350-ish OBP from their All-Star catcher.

Like Norris, Justin Upton is projected to lose roughly 50 points off his OPS even though he’s also in the heart of his prime (Upton’s 27). That lost production is expected to come entirely from his power figures, with his slugging predicted to fall nearly 50 points even though his ISO has increased each of the last two years. That trend won’t continue at Petco, but he should be able to hold his own in the power department.

Since leaving Arizona’s homer-friendly Chase Field in 2012, Upton has remained one of the game’s premier sources of righthanded power despite spending the last two seasons in Turner Field—a much tougher park for sluggers. It’s not as brutal as Petco but still suppresses righthanded home runs by six percent. That didn’t stop Upton from slamming 56 home runs over the past two years (31 at home), and in a friendlier park he likely would have topped 30 both years. He’ll have a hard time cracking 30 in Petco, but should still be good for around 25 or so.
Kemp can hit anywhere (FanDuel)
Of the new Padres, Matt Kemp is the most familiar with Petco, as he’s logged more career at-bats there than the rest of them combined. He also spent his entire career in Dodger Stadium, which tied with PNC Park for being the third-toughest park for hitters from 2012-2014, so he’s no stranger to calling an offensive wasteland home. The Chavez Ravine also limited righthanded batting average by seven percent during that time. None of that deterred Kemp from hitting a robust .288/.349/.493 (135 OPS+) over the last three years, with 30 of his 54 big flies coming at home. Kemp can hit anywhere, as his almost-identical home/road splits can attest, so Petco shouldn't faze him.

And yet, Steamer and ZiPS see a big downward turn coming from Kemp this year, with ZiPS predicting his OPS to plunge 83 points. Given that he’s not far removed from his prime at 30 and just had one of his best offensive seasons, that seems unfairly harsh. As with Upton, Kemp can blast 25 homers in his sleep if he stays healthy, which should be easier for him now that he’s no longer an everyday center fielder.

That’s because Wil Myers, 24, is moving from right field to center–where he’s played all of 53 innings at the major league level. That’s going to present its own challenges as he tries to rebound from a horrendous sophomore slump (77 OPS+) that may have prompted the Rays to cut him loose barely two years after trading for him.

In his brief time with Tampa Bay, Myers struggled at Tropicana Field, which ranked as the AL’s third-toughest place to score from 2012-2014 and hindered righthanded home runs by 12 percent. It’s no surprise, then, that his OPS there was a paltry .684. The young phenom was much better elsewhere, though, with a .753 OPS on the road. Petco’s going to limit his ceiling considerably, but good health should help him at least approach his Rookie of the Year numbers. The projection systems place him slightly closer to his stellar 2013 than his god-awful 2014, which feels about right.

As for Will Middlebrooks, he couldn’t hit even with the advantage of playing half his games in Fenway, so one has to wonder how the Padres expect him to produce in San Diego. His career OPS outside Boston’s lyric little bandbox is .675, which is very worrisome in light of his move west. Petco could very well kill his career.

So while the new Padres will probably see their numbers slip, the decline won’t be as pronounced as one might expect. They’ve experienced success in similarly difficult ballparks and shouldn’t fall apart now that they’re playing half their games in San Diego. If they were coming from places like Texas and Colorado that would be greater cause for concern, but Petco isn’t significantly tougher than their past home parks. Maybe that’s why the Padres traded for them in the first place.

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