By Albert Chen
July 21, 2010

The kick is coming -- isn't it? At any moment now the San Diego Padres, like the crew of thieves in Inception, will wake up from their dream and come crashing back down to earth in the NL West. The Padres were The Surprise of the season's first half -- and they'll be the biggest surprise of the season's second half if they finish the season where they began the week, atop the NL West and with the best record in the National League.

But here's why the kick may not ever come: the Padres' no-name pitching staff, which leads the majors with a 3.25 ERA, just may be this good: Mat Latos (2.45 ERA), Wade LeBlanc (3.28), Jon Garland (3.45), and Clayton Richard (3.53) may actually sustain their level of performance, and the reason is the band of glovemen behind them. "The defense has been huge for us," says manager Bud Black, who over the weekend was rewarded for his team's strong first half with a three-year contract extension. "They've had a big impact on the pitching staff."

The past two winters there's been a lot of talk of a kind of revolution in the game: a re-emphasis on team fielding, an embracing of the new Moneyball. This offseason the Mariners and the Red Sox were the poster-children of the new glove affair. The team the cognoscenti snoozed on were the Padres, who are looking like this year's version of the 2008 Rays and 2009 Mariners. San Diego, which won 75 games and was outscored by 131 runs last year, has improved in the most cost effective way: by bolstering their team defense.

Earlier this year I asked analyst Tom Tango, co-author of The Book, what impact very good fielders could have on a pitching staff. His reply: "A typical great fielding team can shave half a run a game off a typical pitcher's ERA. If you went with an all-Gold Glove team, then that shaves a run off a pitcher's ERA."

The Padres may not be what Tango considers a "great fielding team," but it's abundantly clear that they have at least gone from being a below average fielding team to a very good one. A year after ranking 18th in baseball in UZR (-10.7), they lead the majors (+36.2). According to John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions and his Runs Saved metric, the Padres' 48 runs saved are thus far second most only to the Rays (62). San Diego was the National League's most improved defensive team. Second? The NL East-leading Braves (43 runs saved).

Entering play Tuesday night, four San Diego players ranked in the top two in the NL at their position in UZR: first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, second baseman David Eckstein, third baseman Chase Headley, and center fielder Tony Gwynn Jr. The 27-year-old Gwynn (+12.3 UZR, first among all center fielders) has emerged as one of the game's top fielders. This winter the Padres smartly moved Headley (+6.1) from left field back to his natural position. Eckstein, now 35 and the only infielder in the majors to not have committed an error with at least 70 games played this season, is playing the best defense of his career (+4.1). Jerry Hairston, signed in the offseason as a utility player, has given the team a big boost at shortstop. Says Dewan, "You can attribute about five wins of the Padres improvement this year over last to defense."

The Padres may not win the NL West. The Rockies may not cool off, and the Giants' pitching is simply too good to ignore. But as long as the Padres keep feeling the glove, they will be the team to beat in the west.

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