Monday, March 19, 2012

Post-Moneyball Padres

Moneyball is out. Hardball, if you will, is in.

Compared to when Sandy Alderson was their CEO, the Padres have shifted to new, if old-fashioned, ways of preparing their minor leaguers.

Simply put, the Padres wanted their hitters, starting pitchers and baserunners to be more assertive, leading to a shake-up in player development three offseasons ago.

Franchise veteran Randy Smith, after becoming farm director, set forth the new practices in 2010. In time, he hired coaches at every minor league level.

"I'm not saying anything was done wrong before," said Smith, a former Padres general manager. "We're just doing things differently."

Only now are certain details coming to light, industry chatter having reached this blog.

For example, patience is no longer the first buzzword directed at the system's hitters. Told before to be "patiently aggressive" -- an organizational slogan from 2005-09 -- hitters are now taught to believe the count is 2-0 when it's actually 0-0.

A percentage of fastballs is required of starting pitchers below Double-A, reflecting Smith's belief in developing and maintaining arms. Previously there wasn't a percentage mandate for fastballs, which now must represent 75 percent of a starter's output, 80 percent for those in the Dominican Summer League. Changeups aren't required, after Smith nixed the mandate for a 20-percent diet of them.

Almost ad nauseum, baserunners are drilled to anticipate taking the next 90 feet.

"We don't want passive guys," said Smith. "We don't want passive hitters. We don't want passive pitchers."

Front offices typically put their own stamp on a farm system, and from 2005-09, San Diego's six affiliates bore the Moneyball stamp as applied by Alderson, the club's CEO and the spiritual godfather of Moneyball practices, and Grady Fuson, the V-P of scouting and player development who was Oakland's scouting director under Alderson and later Billy Beane.

Arriving from the Red Sox in late 2009, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod saw fit to shake up both the scouting and player development staffs.

With the blessing of CEO Jeff Moorad, who supplanted Alderson in early 2009, the Padres more than doubled their number of amateur scouts. I wrote at length about the implications of  the scouting shift leading up to last year's draft.

The change in player development began when McLeod offered the farm director's job to Smith, who was in charge of the Padres' international operations, and still is. Smith said he already held similar beliefs on development with McLeod, who began his scouting career with the Padres. The two also share a friendship with Tony Gwynn, who often says that minor leaguers need "to swing the bat" to learn how to hit.

Scouts saw differences in how Padres minor leaguers approached hitting last year. Hitters weren't as likely to take 0-0 pitches, as compared with recent years. Among the hitters who became more aggressive early in the count was James Darnell, who had a breakout season in Double-A.

If hitters act as though the count is 2-0 when it's actually 0-0, they're more likely to clout their favorite type of pitch should it arrive. That's the reasoning.

"Get your pitch, swing the bat, and it doesn't matter if the count is 0-0," Smith said. "We used to be 0-1 all the time because pitchers knew we were taking."

Hitters are to confront the pitcher "with bad intentions," and with the idea of "hurting the ball," as Smith believes a pitcher should be on edge.

"If the pitcher knows we're ready to hit, they start being a little finer," said Smith. "I think if you're a good hitter, you walk. I think you have to swing the bat first, and then you learn what pitches you can handle. If pitchers start thinking you're dangerous, you're more likely to walk."

A 2-0 approach to hitting means looking for only a certain pitch and letting all others pass. Given that two Padres affiliates led their leagues in walks drawn last year, the new philosophy shouldn't be thought as hacker-friendly. Administrations past and present can be proud of the farm system's current standing -- No. 1 rankings from ESPN.com's Keith Law and Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein, and a No. 3 listing from Baseball America.

"We're big on strike-zone integrity no matter what," Smith said. "We still preach it. We still place a premium on it."

As for the system's pitchers, Smith reported a "huge jump in velocity" in 2011 and associated it with the mandate on fastballs. He described the changeup "as a great pitch" but suggested that if a starter must devote 20 percent of his pitches to it and also throws curveballs or sliders, fastball usage could sag and lead to flagging arm strength. Padres instructors will tell pitchers to throw more changeups if they deem it necessary. It's an old belief that pitchers maintain or gain velocity by throwing fastballs.

"Statistically it's shown that if you don't throw 90 miles per hour or better, you're not going to stay in the big leagues," said Smith, whose acquisition of powers pitchers such as Trevor Hoffman and Andy Ashby contributed to National League West-winning seasons in 1996 and 1998.

If  the practices are new to Padres minor leaguers who entered the system from 2005-09, they're as old to modern baseball as pine tar and batting helmets. Smith sees considerable truth in some of the sport's colorful old sayings, including, hitters don't walk their way to the big leagues.

As a secondary motivation, the Padres believe that their ballpark, which plays unusually large, further rewards baserunners who are practiced at aggression, and hitters who are ready to munch 0-0 cookies.

"We're not trying reinvent the wheel; we only want to apply the wheel," Smith said.

2 comments:

  1. Great article Tom.

    Making batters take the first pitch used to drive me crazy. Taking extra pitches just to wear out pitchers was even worse.

    Lots of tenants of the 90's - 2000's moneyball are moot in the post-steroid era. Just trying to get on base and waiting for the big swat doesn't work anymore...thank goodness.

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  2. Hallelujah!! One of the things I hated about the previous regime was that they stuck to principles that simply did not work at this ballpark. Ignoring speed and playing for the 3 run homer are strategies that are not conducive to success at Petco. I love that this regime is at least trying to get players that better fit the ballpark (i.e. swapping Rizzo for Alonso).

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