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Stats say Padres' 'D' up the middle is elite

@AJCassavell
September 14, 2020

SAN DIEGO -- Statcast unveiled its 2020 outs above average leaderboard on Monday, and, no, your eyes weren’t deceiving you: The Padres defense has been rock-solid up the middle. Three of the 12 best defenders in baseball reside in San Diego, according to the all-encompassing defensive metric. Second baseman Jake

SAN DIEGO -- Statcast unveiled its 2020 outs above average leaderboard on Monday, and, no, your eyes weren’t deceiving you: The Padres defense has been rock-solid up the middle.

Three of the 12 best defenders in baseball reside in San Diego, according to the all-encompassing defensive metric. Second baseman Jake Cronenworth ranks fourth, shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. ranks sixth and center fielder Trent Grisham ranks 12th.

"Any time, defensively, you can be strong up the middle, that's a plus," Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. "Tatis' game defensively continues to improve. Jake, he's doing a great job at all the positions he's been at, and he's settled in at second. The way Grisham's moving off the ball, gliding, running down balls, that's been big."

For varying reasons, all three of those success stories represent major victories for the Padres. Nowhere more so than with Tatis. The superstar shortstop was brilliant in all other aspects during his 2019 rookie season. But his defense left plenty to be desired.

Tatis showed up to Padres camp this summer and told his coaches, "I want to be great at defense." And he has been. Last season, he was ranked as a bottom 10 defender by the metric. Now, he's top 10. At the beginning of the year, there were faint calls for Tatis to switch positions. Those have stopped entirely.

Grisham is a similar story. He was blocked by Lorenzo Cain in Milwaukee and had never manned center field in the big leagues. The Padres took a shot on him because they liked his jumps, and they figured his skill set would translate. Has it ever. Among outfielders, Grisham trails only Luis Robert, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Kevin Kiermaier -- three of the sport’s best.

As for Cronenworth, his defensive success is least surprising. He always owned an elite glove in the Rays’ organization.

But Cronenworth has combined that glove with Rookie of the Year-caliber production at the plate. Widely believed to be a throw-in in the Tommy Pham trade, Cronenworth has entrenched himself as the Padres’ second baseman of the future.

That future sure seems bright up the middle. Tatis is 21, Grisham is 23 and Cronenworth is the elder statesman at 26. At three of the sport's most important positions, the Padres might be set for a long time.

Nola fits right in
The Padres asked a lot of Austin Nola when they landed him from Seattle a day before the Trade Deadline. The 30-year-old catcher would need to learn a brand new pitching staff -- and do so while helping to anchor the middle of the San Diego lineup.

That hasn't been a problem for Nola. Entering play Monday, he had caught eight games for the Padres. Four were shutouts. Nola also owns an .888 OPS since his arrival two weeks ago, with five extra-base hits, already more than what Austin Hedges produced over the season's first six weeks.

Nola credited his quick transition to the coaching staff, particularly to pitching coach Larry Rothschild and bullpen coach Ben Fritz. They've filled in details around the edges about the new pitchers he has to catch.

Nola has also leaned on Jason Castro, who arrived in a trade on the same day. The two catchers regularly share notes on who they've caught.

Since Nola and Castro arrived (via the same private jet from Anaheim), the Padres have a 2.38 team ERA and a 2.58 FIP -- both the best in baseball.

"It's definitely a constant transition, learning each guy and learning what makes them tick," Nola said. "It's been impressive to watch these guys on the mound. I've really been enjoying catching them -- a lot of great stuff and a lot of good character, guys just wanting to go out and compete."

Pham on the mend
Tingler wouldn't rule out a return for left fielder Pham later this week. Pham, who has missed four weeks after surgery to address a broken hamate bone in his left hand, has gotten at-bats at the team's alternate training site at the University of San Diego.

"It's just going to be a matter of him getting enough strength," Tingler said.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.