San Diego Padres are flying under the radar in the National League West

The San Diego Padres are on a hot streak. Why Manny Machado and Co. are for real.

San Diego Padres
Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The San Diego Padres are a .500 team and eight games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West. It’s easy to think that they’re not to be taken seriously–heck, they traded Juan Soto away just a few months ago. Yet, they’re on a bit of a hot streak (yes, it’s May), and they seem to have some room to get better.

This month, the Padres have taken two of three from the Arizona Diamondbacks on the road, two of three from the Chicago Cubs on the road, two of three from the Dodgers at home, were swept by the Colorado Rockies at home, and over the weekend they took three of four from the Atlanta Braves on the road. Outside of Colorado, all of those teams are among the best in the National League, and most of those series came away from Petco Park.

With that recent success, the Padres record against teams with a record above .500 now sits at 14-10, good for a .583 winning percentage (a 95-win pace) against the good teams in baseball. The Dodgers (.529) and Philadelphia Phillies (.667) are the only two teams in the National League with a winning record against such teams, and the Phillies are just 4-2. Philly has the best record in baseball at 34-14, but they haven’t been tested nearly as much as San Diego, who has played four times as many games against the good teams.

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Why the San Diego Padres matters

San Diego Padres
Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Having a winning record against good teams is an important factor in determining success over the course of the regular season, and potentially into the postseason. To get into October baseball, a team generally needs a winning record.

Why not write about the San Francisco Giants or Arizona Diamondbacks who are only one and two games behind the Padres? They’re all right in the middle of the wild card hunt, with San Diego holding the third and final spot, with S.F. and Arizona nipping at their heels. Well, the Giants have scored fewer and given up more runs than San Diego, leaving them with a -28 run differential and a 7-16 record against .500 teams. These two clubs are not on the same level.

Arizona, who lost in the postseason last year and then added Jordan Montgomery and Eduardo Rodriguez, are struggling to begin the season at 22-26. Like the Giants, they have a negative run differential (-3) and have an even worse record (6-16) against the .500 clubs.

The Padres have also played more games than nearly every club in baseball at 50, due to their early start in Korea. Most clubs are right around 48 games played at this point in the year, but everyone has to play 162 before season’s end. That means a couple of extra off-days for the Padres. Atlanta, who is currently the to wild card in the NL, has only played 44 games, which means fewer off days for the Braves over the next few months. We’ll see if that plays a role in their positioning over the course of the season.

What’s working for the San Diego Padres

After going 15-18 to begin the year, a 10-7 start to May has the Padres back at .500 on the year with a series on the road in Cincinnati looming.

During this hot streak, Jurickson Profar as been the team’s best hitter with a 192 wRC+ (100 is league average) ranking him ninth in all of baseball in May. Profar has hit .377 with a .449 OBP, three homers, 12 RBI, and has walked (8) as many times as he’s struck out.

It also doesn’t hurt that Jake Cronenworth holds a 164 wRC+ which ranks 18th in MLB after hitting .281 with a .343 on-base, four homers and 12 RBI of his own. His .859 OPS ranks in between José Ramírez and Austin Riley.

As a team, the San Diego Padres have the second-best offense in baseball with a 120 wRC+ this month and seven of the nine regulars are hitting at least above league average.

On the pitching side, Yu Darvish has a 0.00 ERA across 19 innings pitched and holds a 0.53 WHIP, so he’s been good. Michael King has a 2.95 ERA through three starts, two of which were scoreless and one of which was a seven-inning two-hit and 11 strikeout performance against the Dodgers. In the ensuing turn in the rotation he allowed six runs to the Rockies.

The Padres staff as a whole ranks 7th in May in ERA at 3.18, with their starters at 2.98 and the relievers at a 3.54. The team is playing well and taking home wins, but they’re not clicking on all cylinders just yet.

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More to come?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Diego Padres
Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

We said that seven of the team’s nine regulars were hitting above average this month, but the two players that aren’t are arguably two of its biggest stars.

Manny Machado, for the month, is batting .194 with a .242 on-base, good for a 40 wRC+. That’s the lowest of the nine regulars. The 31-year-old is still feeling the effects of his surgery last October to repair his elbow, which has led to him splitting time between DH and third base.

His batted ball metrics believe that he’s going to have a turnaround. He’s hitting the ball just as hard as he has in the past (91.9 mph), but it’s his launch angle that is in single digits (9.5 degrees) while it typically sits at around 15. His expected batting average (xBA) is right where it has been the previous two seasons and his xSLUG is in the same range as well. If he can make a couple of little adjustments, he has the potential for a Machado-esque season.

The other player that hasn’t been performing well is Xander Bogaerts. The second baseman has hit .224 with a .220 on-base, good for a 72 wRC+, which is right in line with the kind of season he’s having. Bogaerts also left the first game of yesterday’s doubleheader with mild inflammation in his left shoulder, but initial imaging was negative, which is a hopeful sign.

This season Bogaerts has been striking out a little more and walking a little less, but he’s barreling balls up more than he did a year ago, and he’s made a big improvement in his sweet spot% from the fourth percentile last season to the 75th this year. A sweet spot is basically when a ball leaves the bat at an angle between 8 and 32 degrees. It should come as no surprise that his overall launch angle has gone from 7.9 degrees to 12.8, which is the second-highest of his career.

You have to wonder if he tries to take that angle down a little bit to where he’s found success in the past, because without the power of a big exit velocity (86.2 mph average), the higher launch angle isn’t going to have its desired effect.

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Time to fear the San Diego Padres?

The short answer is that it’s still May, so no team should necessarily be feared yet. There is still a lot of season left to go. The longer answer is true for every team, but it resonates a bit more for the San Diego Padres at this specific moment: How healthy will they remain?

Machado is still dealing with the effects of his surgery and it’s hampering his production. If he’s not the a superstar level player, then that puts the Pads at a disadvantage.

While the imaging on Bogaerts was negative in Atlanta on Monday, we’ll have to wait to see if he’ll require an IL stint, and if so, how long it’ll be. Even if he avoids the IL, how will the inflammation impact him in the short and long-term? These are the questions that could have a big impact on the team’s outlook for 2024.

Meanwhile, when the Padres are done with the Reds on the road, they have a weekend series at home against Juan Soto and the New York Yankees, which could provide a real litmus test for how seriously to take this team. San Diego looks to be tossing out Darvish, Dyland Cease, and Joe Musgrove on Friday-Sunday, so they’ll be lined up perfectly to face the Bombers.

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