The Padres Have Stopped Swinging

Everyone walks in San Diego. Should the Friars be more aggressive?

Through Monday’s games, two teams in MLB had team walk rates above 11%- the Dodgers and the Padres. It seems unlikely to last, as just two teams in the past 20 years have finished a season with walk rates above that mark, and both were in last year’s shortened season. It’s early, sure, but the approach for San Diego in particular up to this point of the season has been quite notable.

The Padres have ten players who have reached the 30 plate appearance threshold, and the lowest walk rate is Ha-Seong Kim’s 7.1%. Seven of those ten players have walk rates in double digits. Everyone is taking walks for the Friars. You might expect with that many free passes on the bases, they’re also refraining from swinging much. You’d be right, it’s also an extreme extent to which the Padres take pitches.

This season, San Diego has swung less than any other team in MLB (42.1%). That’s 1.6% lower than 29th-place Oakland. That’s the difference between Oakland and 19th-place Washington. If that rate held over a full season, it’d be the third-lowest swing rate for a team in the pitch-tracking era (that leaderboard is littered with the mid-2000s “moneyball” era A’s and Red Sox teams). 

They’re the second-lowest swinging team at pitches outside the zone, as well as pitches inside the zone. For context, the Padres’ closest competitors to the walk rate crown up to this point, the Dodgers, are lowest at swinging at pitches outside the zone, but 16th at pitches in the strike zone. The Padres simply aren’t swinging at much of anything up to this point, as they lead the league in called strikes by nearly a full percentage point. Again, some context here is useful: that difference is the same as the second-highest called strike team and the 14th-highest called strike team. 

The extreme non-swinginess (it’s a word, I checked) of the Padres is an outlier in the early going, but they’ve also held back quite a bit as a team over the past two seasons when they rated 18th (2019) and 14th (2020) in walk rate. The results are obviously different so far this year, and while taking more walks is generally good, it hasn’t really added up at the plate for the Padres, who have been about a league-average offense to this point. Their division-rival Dodgers, meanwhile, are second in baseball by wRC+, while walking almost as often.

Again, it’s very early in the season and best not to draw any grand pronouncements from an 18-game sample size. While the Padres have typically been a discerning team when it comes to taking their hacks over the past few seasons, the degree to which they’ve taken called strikes may currently be pushing the boundaries of what a league-average offense can do. In fact, only two teams in the pitch-tracing era (since 2002) have finished with an above-average offense by wRC+ with a called strike rate as high as the Pads’ in 2021. 

And, similarly to the uniformly high walk rates on the team, among the 10 batters with 30 or more PA, only one has a called-strike rate below 17.6%, Eric Hosmer’s 13% CStr%. Put another way, every Padres regular (save Hosmer) has a higher called-strike rate than the median MLB team average (17.2%).

Perhaps the most notable change among the Padre regulars has been Manny Machado. His swings at pitches inside the zone have cratered by nearly 10% from last year’s numbers, which were largely in line with his career averages. He’s also swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, and as a result, his overall swing rate is down significantly and is by far the lowest of his career. Machado’s called strike rate is four percentage points higher than his career average. If it’s an intentional adjustment on Machado’s part, it doesn’t seem to have affected his production negatively overall. He’s hitting 29% above league average and posting by far the highest walk rate of his career while his strikeouts are only slightly above his career average.

Taken as a whole, the Padres’ lack of swings is probably attributable to an early-season small sample. They’ve never really been all that much of a free-swinging team, but this year’s squad has really taken that to another level in the early going. The offense is still about average and the smart money continues for it to prove much better than that. The approach though is definitely an intriguing aspect to their team, as intuitively there has to be a limit at which you can take pitches and still be effective. The Padres just may be the team to push that limit. 

Stats through Monday’s games, and swing rates via Fangraphs

Photos by Brian Rothmuller and Dustin Bradford/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@JustParaDesigns on Twitter)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a contributor to Pitcher List and writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league.

Account / Login
>