Padres reaping benefits of refined approach on D

May 16th, 2016

During the offseason, the Padres added Jon Jay and Alexei Ramirez. They also decided to use a pair of lifelong center fielders next to each other in the outfield and moved Wil Myers (permanently, it seems) to first base.

Those personnel changes and positioning decisions made the Padres an improved defensive ballclub; few argued that much heading into 2016. But just how much better were they, exactly?

We still don't have concrete answers. (A month and a half is far too small of a sample size.) But thus far in 2016, the Padres have put forth an improved defensive display in just about every facet. Currently, they sit sixth in the Majors with 13 Defensive Runs Saved -- compared with their dismal minus-28 mark from a year ago, which ranked 26th overall.

In the eyes of first-base and outfielders coach Tarrik Brock, the improvements are a result of several key factors -- first and foremost, the players on the field. There's also been an increased focus within the organization on proper defensive positioning and effective first steps.

"The players are definitely working hard, and they prepared themselves from the offseason to Spring Training," Brock said. "As a coaching staff, we've done our homework -- studying our charts, knowing our pitching staff and our defense and our players and their strengths. When you combine that with our pitchers hitting their spots, it's a combination of everything coming together."

Brock's bunch has had the biggest impact on the club's overall defensive gains. According to Fangraphs, San Diego outfielders have posted a plus-12 DRS this season, 30 runs better than 2015.

Since last year, the Padres put a halt to Myers' ill-fated tenure in center field. They pushed Melvin Upton Jr. to left field, where he's flourished. And they've given significant time to Travis Jankowski late in games. Even Matt Kemp has been much improved defensively this season.

"They give us a very good guideline," Upton said of the game-planning done by San Diego's coaches. "At the same time, you've got veteran outfielders that have been out there a while, that know how to read hitters, that know how to read what your pitcher's got that day, and what they're doing. So you combine all of that and it's definitely been coming together."

The Padres' outfield has been spectacular at times this season, with four or five highlight-reel catches in key moments. In the infield, the progress has been more methodical.

Four infielders are currently on the disabled list, and it's been tough for manager Andy Green to establish continuity. But the one constant has been an increased focus on defensive positioning -- which has led to players' shuffling around the infield, sometimes two or three times during an individual at-bat.

According to third-base coach Glenn Hoffman, the positive impact of shifting has been a direct result of the coaching staff's wealth of information.

"The spray charts have more detail into them than years before, where there were just a few lines," Hoffman said. "Now we've got things like counts -- ahead in the count, behind in the count."

Hoffman and assistant coach Eddie Rodriguez pore through binders every day, ultimately coming up with a plan for defending their opponent. They'll then confer with Green and pitching coach Darren Balsley to make sure the defensive strategy jives with the pitcher's plan of attack.

More often than not, San Diego's overarching defensive strategy has worked. The .258 batting average against what FanGraphs classifies as "traditional shifts" for the Padres is the sixth lowest in the game.

"It feels good because you've done your homework," Hoffman said. "You've put some work in and it pays off. If it goes against the grain, they get a hit, that's baseball. But overall, we're just trying to go with the percentages."

San Diego has been playing Brett Wallace out of position for most of this month. A first baseman/DH-type by trade, Wallace has been playing at third -- which often means he's moving all over the infield against left-handed hitters.

As a victim of quite a few shifts himself, Wallace said it's remarkable to see out-of-position Padres receive batted balls so frequently. But given the work put in by the coaching staff, he says it's not surprising.

"You start with everything they do just to get us prepared to play in general, just the ground balls they hit to us and the things they teach us," Wallace said. "And then there's a staff that goes all the way up to the front office that goes over numbers and helps come up with where we're going to play.

"It's shown statistically that it helps quite a bit, and more often than not, we're in positions to take away hits."

The same holds true of the outfield, as San Diego have used quite a few atypical alignments. In Upton's eyes, the staff's prep work combined with the defensive talent on the field has turned the Padres' outfield into a force.

"It's either got to be hit on a line or go over a fence -- or we're catching it," Upton said. "That's the way we feel, man. We take pride in it, and hopefully we can continue to get better."