Picky Padres batters avoiding strikeouts

May 16th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- While you were paying close attention to everything the Padres’ offense was doing on Saturday night -- three homers, two doubles, six walks, 17 hits in a 13-3 victory over the Cardinals -- you might have missed what they didn't do.

Specifically, they didn't strike out.

The Padres tallied just two strikeouts on Saturday, and both were recorded with a pitcher at the plate. (Both, in fact, came from fouled bunt attempts by .) It marked the first time that the Padres played a game in which none of their position players struck out since 2005 -- and the first time it's happened in the Majors since the Braves did so on April 6, 2018.

Considering the strikeout-heavy nature of the sport these days, it’s certainly a noteworthy achievement. For the Padres, it's also indicative of a larger trend. They just aren't striking out a whole lot.

San Diego's 20.9% strikeout rate entering Sunday was the lowest in the National League and the second lowest in the Majors, behind only the Astros. The Padres have paired it with a 10.7% walk rate, which ranks fourth in the Majors.

Perhaps most notably, the gap between strikeout and walk rate is by far the smallest in the Majors. The Padres are finding their way on base -- and they aren't doing so at the risk of increased strikeouts. Manager Jayce Tingler boiled that fact down to the basics:

"At the simplest form, we want to swing at strikes and take balls," Tingler said. "I know it sounds simple. It's incredibly hard to do."

The Padres of the past decade should know that as well as anyone. Before their 2020 breakthrough, they consistently ranked toward the bottom of the league in on-base percentage and toward the top in strikeout rate.

As such, this season's strikeout and walk rates represent an organizational victory. It's part philosophical, and it's part because of the fact that, well, the Padres have more good hitters than they used to.

“It’s definitely about the caliber of player we have,” said Padres hitting coach Damion Easley. “We have some good hitters that are able to put the ball in play. And when they do, they hit it hard. We’re not having to try to do too much. It’s about them buying into an approach that fits them and fits us.”

The league-average walk rate is 9% this season. Among the nine Padres with the most plate appearances this season, all of them have a walk rate of 9% or higher, except one -- Eric Hosmer at 8.9%. The Padres are as selective as any team in baseball, with the Majors' second-ranked chase rate and second-ranked swinging-strike rate.

The don't swing very often. (In fact, their 42.6% swing rate is the lowest in baseball.) But the goal, Tingler said, is to swing often enough -- and at the right pitches, with the intent to do damage -- that pitchers are forced out of the zone.

"It's a constant cat-and-mouse game," Tingler said. "If we're not swinging and we're not doing damage, pitchers are going to fill the zone up on you. When you are doing damage, they're going to be a little bit more timid, a little bit more perfect, and they're going to end up missing. So you're going to find yourself in better counts."

Therein lies perhaps the biggest question mark in all this. The Padres are being ultra-selective this season, and they're reaching base as a result. But -- until lately -- they aren't quite slugging at the clip they'd like to. Have they sacrificed any of their power in order to reach base and avoid strikeouts?

They don’t think so. They say there’s room for both.

“They both can happen,” Easley said. “If you’re patient, waiting on your pitches, the slug will happen when your timing’s right. … The difference is guys swinging at the pitches they can drive into the gaps for extra-base hits versus something they can just put in play.”

Worth noting
• Tingler said that all five Padres on the COVID-related IL remain asymptomatic, including and , who both tested positive. Tingler also noted there have been no positive tests for , and . Those three are on the IL because of MLB's contact tracing protocols.

• Padres right-hander will fly to Texas on Monday, Tingler said, to get a second opinion on his ailing right forearm/elbow. Kela, who missed most of the 2020 season because of forearm inflammation, landed on the IL earlier this month because of right forearm tightness.