Despite improvement, Black ousted for not meeting steep expectations
The Padres fired manager Bud Black on Monday afternoon, cutting short his ninth season as San Diego’s skipper. This moves comes despite the fact that the Padres’ winning percentage has improved in three of the last four seasons and in each month of the current season. So if Black’s team was winning more in 2015 than in '14 (in which it won more than '13) and more in June than it did in May (in which it won more than it did in April), why is Black, who won the National League’s Manager of the Year award in '10, suddenly out of a job? The answer is that expectations in San Diego rose faster this winter than the team’s winning percentage has this spring.
That’s not Black’s fault. Under the leadership of rookie general manager A.J. Preller, who was hired away in early August from the Rangers, for whom he served as assistant GM, the Padres made one high-profile acquisition after another this winter, adding, in rapid succession, catcher Derek Norris, outfielders Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton, righthanded starter James Shields and closer Craig Kimbrel. Those are some impressive bold-faced names, including the best closer in baseball (Kimbrel) one of the three best free-agent starting pitchers on the market (Shields), a former MVP candidate (Kemp), a former Rookie of the Year (Myers), an All-Star catcher (Norris) and a 27-year-old slugger with two Silver Sluggers in his trophy collection (Upton). It’s no wonder that expectations spiked in San Diego coming into the season.
However, a clear-eyed assessment of the Padres' radically rebuilt roster would have noted that Preller did little to bolster the team’s weak infield—busted third-base prospect Will Middlebrooks and veteran good-field, no-hit shortstop Clint Barmes were his only additions there—while his attempt to shoehorn Upton, Myers and Kemp into the outfield would have a deleterious effect on the team’s overall fielding performance. Those concerns were why I was the only SI.com baseball writer not to pick the Padres to make the playoffs, and the reality of the situation proved to be worse than expected.
The Padres' outfield defense has indeed been terrible. Expecting Myers to play a competent centerfield proved to be a pipe dream, the reality of which has led to Myers making five of his last six starts at first base, pushing Yonder Alonso to third base. Kemp, who was among the worst fielders in baseball in 2014, has been less disastrous as a full-time rightfielder, but remains well below average with Upton equally inept in left. As a result, the Padres have sunk from ninth in the majors in park-adjusted defensive efficiency a year ago to 23rd this year.
To make matters worse, Kemp has been below average at the plate as well, hitting a mere .249/.289/.340 (79 OPS+), making him a sub-replacement-level player on the year. Second baseman Jedd Gyorko was even worse (.210/.282/.311, 70 OPS+) before being shipped back to the minors for the first time since 2012 (not counting rehabilitation assignments). Black deserves credit for quickly shifting to rookie Cory Spangenberg at the keystone, but he has shown more patience, arguably too much, with Middlebrooks (.227/.259/.389, 83 OPS+) at third base. As a result, third base has been the Padres' second least-productive position this season. Middlebrooks, of course, was a Preller acquisition, whereas Gyorko has been in the organization since being drafted under Jed Hoyer in 2010.
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The Padres have also had their share of injuries this season. Myers has hit, but the Padres announced on Monday that he is headed back to the disabled list due to the same tendonitis in left wrist that has already cost him a month of this season. Alonso seems to be having something of a breakout season at the age of 28, but he, too, spent nearly a month on the DL with a bone bruise in his right shoulder. In the rotation, oft-injured free agent Brandon Morrow lasted all of five starts before landing back on the disabled list with a shoulder issue, while oft-injured free agent Josh Johnson, whom Preller re-signed coming off Tommy John surgery, is still rehabbing from his April 2014 surgery. Meanwhile, despite pitching half their games in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, the Padres pitchers have allowed the second-most home runs in the National League (75 to the Brewers’ 77).
According to third-order record, which calculates expected runs scored and allowed from the individual elements of run scoring then calculates an expected winning percentage from that, the Padres have played like a 28–37 (.429) team thus far this season. In reality, however, they are 32–33 (.492), thanks in part to an 11–8 record over their last 19 games.
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Despite all of that, Black, who is widely regarded as one of the best managers in baseball and who, for years, has gotten more than expected out of lousy rosters thanks in part to his ability to rotate his lineups, massage his bullpen and put his players in position to succeed, has been fired on the heels of a 2–1 series loss to the Dodgers. L.A. is one of the best teams in baseball, but the Padres were outscored by a grand total of just 9–7 over those three games. This is nothing new. Sacrificing the manager for the sins of the players or the front office is an age-old baseball tradition, but let’s not pretend there was anything else going on here. To whatever small degree a manager can have a positive impact on his team’s performance, the Padres just got that much worse, while other teams contemplating a managerial switch or looking for a sharp, experienced baseball man for their front office, just gained a top candidate.