9 reasons Padres are MLB's must-watch team

August 12th, 2020

Back before the season began, we attempted to sort all 30 teams into various tiers based on expectations for the season. We placed the Padres into a "competitive up-and-comers" grouping of a few teams coming off losing seasons that had made some serious moves to improve. Most important, we described San Diego like this: "The Padres might have more fun-per-second than anyone else."

Two weeks into history's weirdest season, we can officially confirm: Fun is being had. The new-look Padres might only be tied for second place in the NL West, but they are an absolute blast to watch on a nightly basis, even if, due to the rationalized schedule, they're rarely playing at an hour where the East Coast is awake to see them.

Let's see what we can do to help with that. The Padres may or may not end up with their first winning season since 2013; they may or may not make this year's expanded playoffs, since the Rockies are off to such a hot start. But it's important you know what baseball's unofficial "most fun team" is all about.

Let us count the ways ...

1. Because Fernando Tatis Jr. exists.

Obviously. Tatis already introduced himself as a star last year, but he's taken it to a different level in 2020, where he's become almost more of a phenomenon. At 21, the shortstop entered Monday tied with Aaron Judge for the most homers in baseball, he leads the Majors in OPS+ (229, where a mere 100 is "average") and Wins Above Replacement (1.6).

That feels like it doesn't really sum this up. Tatis is one of just eight players in history to have at least 30 homers in their first 100 games. He leads the Majors in hard-hit rate and exit velocity. He has the hardest throw by an infielder this year, 93.5 mph. He's in the Top 10 in running speed, too.

Wait, there's more! He's improved his plate discipline, lowering his chase rate from 30% to 18%. And last year, his otherwise spectacular debut was somewhat spoiled by a relatively weak performance on defense, fueled by an unacceptable number of throwing mistakes. This year, so far: Not one throwing error.

There's also the fact that it's not insane to compare his start to some of baseball's all-time greats ...

... but really, as entertaining as that all is, as wild as all the numbers really are, the numbers don't really tell the full Tatis story. This one's about fun, and excitement, right? Is there anyone who embodies that more than a 21-year-old shortstop who's outslugging nearly everyone in baseball?

As Eric Hosmer told ESPN recently: "I think he's gonna be the face of this game very, very soon." We don't disagree.

2. Because they're making the best quality of contact as a team...

But it's not just him, is it? The Padres are leading baseball in home runs (30) and slugging percentage (.464), and they're second in OPS (.788). While Petco Park isn't nearly as pitcher-friendly as it once was, it's not exactly a hitter's haven, either.

It's not luck. Looking at the advanced Statcast metrics, the Padres have the best quality-of-contact, in terms of expected production based on launch angle and exit velocity. If you roll in strikeouts and walks to that quality of contact to also include amount of contact, they're first there, too. They have the best barrel rate of any team, and a "barrel" is literally just another way of saying "nearly perfect contact," even if a fielder robs you of a hit.

A lot of that is Tatis, but again, he's not doing it alone. Wil Myers, surprisingly, is immediately after him on the barrel rate list. Rookie Jake Cronenworth already has seven extra-base hits and a hard-hit rate north of 52%. Eric Hosmer looked like a new man for the first few days, though he's missed time with a stomach issue. They won't all keep this up, right? But then again, neither Tommy Pham nor Manny Machado have really gotten going yet.

3 ... and also stealing the most bases.

Now that's a fun combination, isn't it? The Padres have 20 steals, the most in baseball, and only three other teams have even half that total. (Pham leads, with five swipes.) Over a full season, that would be a record-setting pace, but that's not what's most interesting here. What if they actually did end up leading in both? Does that happen often?

Well ... no. It hasn't been done since the 1955 Dodgers of Roy Campanella and Duke Snider, who also had done it in '53 and '49. All in all, it's only happened only seven times:

1955 Dodgers
1953 Dodgers
1949 Dodgers
1938 Yankees
1931 Yankees
1930 Yankees
1925 Pirates

Each of those teams had multiple Hall of Famers in their lineup. We're not saying the Padres have that, nor that they'll end up leading the Majors in both of these things, nor even that if they do that a 60-game season is a full-length season. We're just saying: This hasn't happened since 14 years before the Padres were even born -- and the season is already 30% of the way over.

4. Because that Trent Grisham trade looks like a steal ...

One name we didn't note above was Grisham, who's off to quite the start of his own, thanks to a 153 OPS+ and four homers. The Padres completely overhauled their outfield for this year, shipping off Manuel Margot, Hunter Renfroe, Franmil Reyes, Franchy Cordero, Nick Martini and Travis Jankowski, while bringing in Pham from Tampa Bay and Grisham from Milwaukee. It should say a lot about who they valued, and who they didn't.

In Milwaukee, Grisham is always going to be known for the error that helped the Brewers lose the Wild Card Game. But way back in November, before the trade was even made, we tried to identify 2020's deeper sleepers, in the vein of Mike Tauchman. Grisham's name popped up because of his power and excellent plate discipline, and that's exactly what's happened. Still only 23, Grisham's got a Top 10 walk rate and a Top 10 chase rate -- with names like Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon ahead of him -- and he's doing it with power. While it wasn't necessarily popular in San Diego to trade away Luis Urías, it was a risk worth taking.

One thing we didn't expect, however, was what looks like outstanding defense. Grisham has made a handful of outstanding catches, and in the far-too-early going, he's tied atop the Outs Above Average leaderboard with studs like Byron Buxton and Kevin Kiermaier.

5. ... and so does that controversial Drew Pomeranz contract.

Remember when the Padres gave Pomeranz four years last winter, and jaws dropped, because Pomeranz had posted a 6.08 ERA for Boston in 2018 and a 5.68 ERA for the Giants in 2019 before a small-sample rebirth as a Milwaukee reliever?

As we explained before he agreed with the Padres, there were many reasons to believe in him as a star reliever, mostly because it was difficult to ignore the 50 strikeouts he'd posted against 106 batters in relief. Just about anyone else who had done that in the 21st century continued to succeed, and the increased pitch velocity and emphasizing of his best pitches in relief offered a great deal of confidence that he'd be a much better reliever than he was a starter.

So far, so good: Pomeranz has yet to allow a run in eight appearances, striking out 10 in 7 1/3 innings, helping to supplement Kirby Yates in a bullpen that was projected to be among baseball's best, and just helped beat the Dodgers in a postseason-like bullpen game on Monday.

6. Because no team is throwing harder four-seam fastballs

Through Monday's games, the Padres are throwing their four-seamers at 94.7 mph, just a tick ahead of the Mets. Last year, they were 14th. The year before that? 27th. This is better. Put it this way: 87% of their four-seamers come in at 93 mph or higher, which is also the highest in the game.

So where is this velo coming from? If we look at the 10 Padres pitchers averaging 94 mph or more on any type of fastball, only two -- Chris Paddack and Cal Quantrill -- pitched most of a a full season for San Diego in 2019. The rest are either new to the big league team (like Pomeranz or Pierce Johnson) or spent a decent portion of their year with the 2019 Padres in the Minors or rehabbing (like Dinelson Lamet or Luis Patiño.)

Speaking of those two ...

7. Because Lamet might be the best pitcher you don't know ...

Just before the season, we included Lamet on our list of breakout pitchers to watch, because he finally seemed healthy after Tommy John surgery, and because his fastball/slider combination seemed absolutely potent. All he's done so far is to allow four earned runs in four games. That's a 1.61 ERA, and it's a Top 15 strikeout rate.

He's thrown his breaking ball 173 times ... and allowed four hits. It's clear that Chris Paddack is the ace of this stuff, but the lesser-known Lamet might not be that far behind.

8. Because it's very fun to watch Garrett Richards' curveball.

The oft-injured Richards, who recently said "I'm having fun playing baseball again" -- there's that word again -- is finally healthy, and it didn't take him very long to reclaim his place atop the curveball movement leaderboards. The way to read this is that he's getting an extra foot of drop beyond other curveballs at or near his velocity.

What's a curve like that look like? Well, this:

9. Because the brown uniforms are outstanding.

Look, they just are.