The 2023 San Diego Padres Broke My Brain

   Feb 8, 2024     9 min read

Any longtime, die-hard baseball fan can tell you the game – sometimes even the precise play in that game – when the first kernel of real angst over the prospects of their favorite team’s season sprouted in their mind. The first of an accelerating accumulation of moments steeped at first in denial, then doubt, and eventually despair. Every nightmare season starts at .500 and some even begin with success, but every single one has a turning point. An omen that’s undeniably a harbinger of future days, weeks, even months filled with a heartbreak equal parts enraging and deflating.

For me this moment for the 2023 San Diego Padres was glaringly apparent. It wasn’t December 8th, 2022 when Xander Bogaerts, a four-time All-Star shortstop with five Silver Sluggers, signed an 11-year $280M contract with the team. It also wasn’t February 4th, 2023 when the Padres hosted over 45,000 people at Petco Park for an all-day celebration of the team and its star players. It certainly wasn’t February 28th, 2023 when six-time All-Star and Platinum Glove third baseman Manny Machado inked an 11-year $350M extension to stay in San Diego. This dreadful moment came on the cloudy, 62 degree San Diego afternoon of May 17th, 2023.

It’s the bottom of the seventh inning of the finale in a three-game series between the Padres and the Kansas City Royals. The Royals came into the game with a 13-31 record that was second-worst in the league and were well on their way to fulfilling projections to finish the season at the bottom of the standings. The Padres came in 20-23 looking to shake off a slow start to one of the most anticipated seasons in franchise history.

Despite the substantive talent difference between the two teams they split the first two games and the Padres are down 4-3 as backup catcher Brett Sullivant stepped into the left-handed batters box. The bases are loaded after notoriously-erratic reliever Aroldis Chapman has lost command and walked three of the past five batters. With two outs in the inning it’s a rather high-leverage situation that the Padres need to plate at least the tying, if not go-ahead, run to stay in the game.

After missing badly with his first throw, Chapman hurls a 96 mph pitch so high and inside that catcher Salvador Perez has absolutely no shot of snagging it. In fact, the throw is so wild it misses Perez’s glove, Sullivan, and home plate umpire Alfonso ​​Márquez completely and sails all the way to the backstop. In this situation any runner at third base – in this case superstar Juan Soto – is almost certain to score by even lightly jogging to home plate. Soto indeed does run home but by some stroke of terrible luck, Chapman’s pitch was thrown so hard and hit the backstop at such an angle that it almost immediately bounces directly back to Perez who is able to tag out Soto long before he even comes close to scoring. A play with an extremely high chance of at the very least tying the game instead ends the inning. According to Baseball Reference the Royals’ chances of winning the game increased from 59% to 75% from nothing more than the bounce of a wild pitch.

Of course this play alone didn’t doom the Padres’s 2023 season, but to me it was a microcosm of what ended up being the most frustrating and disheartening seasons of baseball I’ve watched in my life. On October 1st, 2023 the Padres finished the 2023 campaign at 82-80 with a +104 run differential (752 scored, 648 allowed). To really illustrate how odd that is, below is a chart with every team’s run differential and winning percentage since 1901:

Based solely on their run differential, the estimated pythagorean winning percentage of the ‘23 Padres is 92-70. Excluding shortened seasons due to labor disputes or the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, the team’s ten win underperformance of that estimate is the ninth worst for a team with a positive run differential since 1901. For the 2023 Padres that gap was the difference between the counterfactual of being the top wild card seed and hosting the first round three-game series at Petco Park and the reality of missing out on the playoffs entirely by two games.

So how did this happen? How did a team with the second-lowest ERA in the league finish one game above .500? How did a team with potentially five future hall of famers not make the playoffs? How did a team with so much promise accomplish so little? It really boils down to the fact that the 2023 San Diego Padres were historically un-clutch.

The statistic wins probability added (WPA) sums all of the positive and negative changes to a team’s win expectancy in a given game that each play has. It’s a useful aggregated number that shows how “clutch” a team is with an average team sitting around 0 for any given season. The 2023 San Diego Padres had a -9.5 WPA which is the second worst score of any MLB team since 1901, behind only the 1965 Boston Red Sox.

Accumulating WPA isn’t necessarily done by being good in general, just performing well when it matters most. In fact, over half of that -9.5 WPA can be accounted for by just ten plays across eight games:

  1. Tommy Edman’s walk-off 2R HR in the bottom of the 9th for the Cardinals on 08/30/23 (-.853 WPA)
  2. Michael Conforto’s go-ahead 2R single in the bottom of the 8th for the Giants on 09/25/23 (-.505 WPA)
  3. Matt McLain’s game-tying 2R HR in the bottom of the 10th for the Reds on 06/30/23 (-.487 WPA)
  4. Nolan Jones’s walk-off 1R HR in the bottom of the 9th for the Rockies on 06/11/23 (-.458 WPA)
  5. Spencer Steer’s walk-off 2R HR in the bottom of the 11th for the Reds on 06/30/23 (-.432 WPA)
  6. Ryan McMahon’s game-tying 1R HR in the bottom of the 9th for the Rockies on 06/11/23 (-.424 WPA)
  7. Jean Segura’s game-tying 1R single in the bottom of the 9th for the Marlins on 05/31/23 (-.413 WPA)
  8. Bryce Harper’s game-tying 1R single in the bottom of the 10th for the Phillies on 07/16/23 (-.4 WPA)
  9. Willson Contreras’s game-tying 2R HR in the bottom of the 8th for the Cardinals on 08/29/23 (-.396 WPA)
  10. Orlando Arcia’s walk-off 1R single in the bottom of the 9th for the Braves on 04/06/23 (-.388 WPA)

But highlighting the lowest WPA plays for the Padres’s 2023 season scapegoats a bullpen that ended up posting a 3.80 ERA, the 10th best in the league. To get to the bottom of the main force behind the Padres’s underperformance in 2023, you have to look at their situational hitting.

Again, not every situation is created equally. A single in the bottom of the first with two outs and the bases empty compared to a single in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and a runner on second might count equally in terms of a team’s overall hitting stats, but vary greatly in terms of WPA. The former is what is considered a low-leverage situation, the latter a high one. Looking at how the 2023 Padres hit in different leverage situations illuminates a big reason why they underperformed their expected winning percentage based on overall production. In low-leverage situations, the 2023 Padres had an OPS+ 13% better than the league overall and in medium-leverage situations they were 3% better. However in high-leverage situations those same Padres had an OPS+ 25% worse than the league overall. It was the second worst OPS+ in high-leverage situations behind the aforementioned Kansas City Royals who were 37% worse than the league average.

It’s really a spectacle of how much of an outlier that much variance between situational hitting for a team is in the context of league history. In fact, for teams at least a 100 OPS+ in low and medium-leverage situations averaged by plate appearances, there have only been four since 1901 to have an OPS+ in high-leverage situations lower than 80: the ‘66 Yankees, the ‘69 Cardinals, the ‘79 Twins, and the ‘23 Padres. You’d be hard-pressed to find a team in MLB history that was able to do less with more than the Padres did in 2023.

The situational hitting splits reveal an infuriating trend the Padres fell into in 2023: frontrunning. In situations where the game was tied or they were ahead, the ‘23 Padres had an OPS+ 11% & 5% better than the league average, respectively. However, when they were behind or the game was late & close, they had an OPS+ 8% and 18% worse than league average. Late & close at-bats only accounted for just 15% of their total at-bats, but they had the 5th worst OPS+ in the league in those situations. That is the diametric opposite of optimal team performance.

So what of the future? Fortunately in baseball there is always next year and frankly it would be improbable for the Padres to be this un-clutch in the upcoming season. If the same team suited up in 2024 reversion to the mean would be more than likely for the Padres and a more successful season would be a reasonable expectation. Unfortunately, as of writing, the team has almost certainly lost their Cy Young award winning starter, their MVP caliber left-fielder, and their All-Star caliber closer, among others. All told it’s about 22.6 Baseball Reference WAR from seven of their top 12 players from 2023. Although the Padres will almost certainly be less unlucky and un-clutch next season, they also are slated to field demonstrably worse talent. It remains to be seen if that combination will translate to more wins.