The Padres continue to look worse in one specific area

ST. LOUIS – A quality start, in baseball parlance, is six or more innings pitched and three or fewer runs earned. Some consider the statistics coined by sportswriter John Lowe in 1985 to be outdated. Yet it remains relevant to many of the sport’s top practitioners.

“My main goal right now is to get one good start after another,” said Padres pitcher Joe Musgrove after pitching seven scoreless innings in a narrow win on May 21 in San Francisco. “I feel like with the offense we’ve got and the defense behind us, if we can go six-plus with two or three or less, you have a good chance of winning.”

The Padres have played 50 games and recorded 28 quality starts, more than any other team in the majors. They’ve lined up seven viable starters at the same time and are already two-thirds on their way to making their 42 total quality starts for 2021. “Your pitching is real,” a rival official said Wednesday morning. That much was obvious. And so much feels like a marked departure from last season.

“You can see how we started the year at similar depth, which we thought was similar depth, and our guys were dropping like flies, one at a time,” Musgrove, the league’s quality starts leader, said this week. “So it can go downhill fast, and we’re not trying to look too far ahead … but yeah, it definitely feels different.”

On Wednesday afternoon, the Padres had provided another reminder that they are otherwise not all that different from the club that imploded last summer. And in at least one aspect, they looked worse. It goes beyond a 30-20 record, although this time they were 32-18 a year ago.

The last exhibit was a 5-2 loss to St. Louis on Wednesday. The Padres, swept out of Busch Stadium, conceded a third straight loss for the first time this season. Tasked with all of the Cardinals’ runs, Yu Darvish did not record San Diego’s 29th quality start. But he saved a skinny bullpen by pitching at least 7 2/3 innings for the first time since 2019.

Aside from Wednesday’s game, Yu Darvish and the pitching team are off to a good start. (Photo: Jeff Curry / USA Today)

The lineup, meanwhile, continued to look significantly weaker than 2021.

Last season’s Padres ended on a mediocre attack, buoyed disproportionately by strong seasons from Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and Jake Cronenworth. Inconsistency and a lack of depth plagued the Padres as they edged out of playoff contention. Certain underlying numbers highlighted their level of underachievement. The 2021 group chased a lower percentage of pitches outside the strike zone than all but the Dodgers and Giants, two teams that eclipsed the 100-win mark. According to Statcast, San Diego ranked seventh in the batting tally.

This year’s Padres missed a headline piece all along. Tatis, who hit 42 home runs in 2021, has not swung a racquet since undergoing surgery in March to repair a fractured wrist. It could start next week pending the results of an upcoming CT scan. But the Padres, whenever they reach that stage, still have to play his rehab by ear. A late June return is optimistic for some in the team, including those who have either experienced or witnessed the lingering effects of a wrist injury.

In Tati’s absence, Machado has reminded fans that he is still the team’s most reliable player. The starting pitchers – from Musgrove, an early Cy Young nominee, to MacKenzie Gore, a rookie-of-the-year contender – have taken on an unusual workload, but a six-man rotation ensures no one is overwhelmed becomes.

“I think the extra day off works pretty well for us as pitchers,” Darvish said through interpreter Shingo Horie. “That might be why we were able to get a little deeper into the games.”

Around Machado, however, the rest of the offensive has mostly withered away. The Padres continue to be among the more disciplined teams in the league. But when they swing, they’ve done shockingly little damage. Her lack of beatings was regularly documented. Under the surface, they rank 28th in hit rate. According to another Statcast metric, no team has that much trouble hitting baseballs.

“We’ve done a great job getting guys out of sticky situations, hit-and-run, hitting some sack flies, but we just have to string something together,” batsman-designate Luke Voit said after Wednesday’s game. “I feel like it’s like a leadoff hit and then it’s like groundout, groundout, strikeout. So we just need to find a way to scrape out a double, bring in a guy, and give our pitchers some confidence.

The Padres own the sixth-best record in the sport but only the 11th-best running differential. Baseball-Reference’s Pythagorean win rate suggests their performance is more in line with a 27-23 team. So they’re a relatively unassuming 19-9 when they get a quality start. They haven’t hit more than four runs in any of their last nine games, three of which have gone into extra innings.

“We’re in one of those things right now where we’re falling a little short,” said manager Bob Melvin. “It’s frustrating for us, but you just keep working, keep fighting your way through.”

Melvin, revered for his consistency, is perhaps the most visible difference from last year to this year. His predecessor, Jayce Tingler, was a first-time manager and struggled to gain respect. Melvin is a three-time Manager of the Year who has a history of success while working with far fewer resources.

Still, there’s not much Melvin and his coaching staff can do. About half of the Padres’ $209 million payroll goes to position players, but before the start of the season there were major concerns about offense. The front office, looking for low-cost help, recently took away a flyer about Robinson Cańo. Since then, Canó has started eight games and hit .091/.118/.091. As FanSided reported on Wednesday, the Padres are expected to fire the 39-year-old.

In the coming days and weeks, President of Baseball Operations AJ Preller could be forced to secure at least one upgrade. How much capital he owns is unclear. The Padres are near the luxury tax threshold of $230 million. Gore is virtually untouchable again. CJ Abrams has been mooted in potential blockbuster trades during spring training but the Padres, who Cronenworth and Trent Grisham are struggling with, need to keep some young, cost-controllable talent. Two other prominent prospects, Robert Hassell III and Luis Campusano, draw mixed reviews from competing executives.

How seriously would San Diego consider trading in one of its starters who isn’t named Musgrove or Gore? The Padres’ 2021 collapse reflected the decimation of their rotation. The 2022 Padres appear to have enough pitching early on and even less attacking than before. It remains next to impossible to predict Preller, but sooner or later he has to do something.

Late Wednesday afternoon there was no sense of panic at the visiting clubhouse at Busch Stadium. Of course it was still too early for something like that. The team’s three-game losing streak was a first.

“Things will turn around,” Cronenworth said. “We have 30 wins.”

The Padres also have 28 good starts, a tally that suggests they should have had at least a few more wins. Maybe the stats need updating.

(Photo of Ha Seong Kim: Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

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