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Padres' offensive surge simple as OBP

@AJCassavell
July 31, 2020

It has been only six games, but this much is already clear about the 2020 Padres: Their offense is different. For six straight seasons, the Padres finished among the Majors’ five worst teams in on-base percentage. But entering play Thursday, they were tied for the Major League lead in walks,

It has been only six games, but this much is already clear about the 2020 Padres: Their offense is different.

For six straight seasons, the Padres finished among the Majors’ five worst teams in on-base percentage. But entering play Thursday, they were tied for the Major League lead in walks, having chased five straight starters before the end of the fifth inning. It’s a stark contrast to the team’s offense during the first six years of general manager A.J. Preller’s tenure.

What sparked the early turnaround? That’s a philosophical baseball question: Was it the change in personnel? (The Padres brought Tommy Pham, Trent Grisham and Jurickson Profar on board this winter.) Or was it a change in approach? (Hitting coach Damion Easley has done his best to overhaul the team's two-strike philosophy.)

"It's a combination of both," said Padres manager Jayce Tingler. "It's those guys coming in. But let me be clear about this part: This is about the work these guys have done."

Here’s a look at how the Padres made strides in both departments:

The personnel
It wasn't the first time the Padres entered an offseason in need of on-base weapons. This time, however, Preller took serious action.

Consider what the Padres parted with in the Pham deal: Hunter Renfroe is an elite power threat and a strong defender. But his career OBP sits below .300. So Preller went after Pham, whose .372 mark is better than any Padres hitter’s single-season OBP since 2012.

Preller also traded for Profar and Grisham. Their overall production has never been at Pham's standards, but both have a clear reputation for working counts and frustrating pitchers.

"These guys do a good job of managing each at-bat," said Easley. "Even if they're 0-for-2, 0-for-3, you know you're still going to get a high quality AB, and they're going to make the pitcher work for it."

Said Pham: "Good teams grind out at-bats, and good teams swing at strikes. As a team, when you're swinging at strikes and not helping the pitcher ... you help out the guy behind you."

Entering play Thursday, that trio had combined for 14 walks. Profar has just one hit but five walks, and he’s leading the Majors with 5.4 pitches per plate appearance. Easley believes that mindset is infectious.

"Hitting's contagious," he said. "It's easy for everyone to flow when things are going good."

The approach
The early season on-base prowess has come from more than just the new arrivals. Wil Myers and Fernando Tatis Jr. have five walks already. Manny Machado has four.

"[Easley] has been a big reason why," Myers said. "Just seeing him in there every day and working to keep me where I need to be -- the credit goes to him."

Hitting coach is a precarious job in San Diego. Easley is the sixth person to fill that role in the past seven seasons. His first order of business was to overhaul the team's two-strike mindset.

"It's about drawing a healthy awareness to it versus a negative pressure awareness," Easley said. "It's being about being comfortable in your own skin. These are big league pitchers. They make a lot of quality pitches. You're going to get to two strikes in half your at-bats, maybe more than half. So being comfortable in two-strike situations is really important."

Easley and Tingler wouldn’t divulge the specifics of the drills the Padres have worked on. But they’ve leaned heavily on high-velocity and curveball machines, mostly mimicking two-strike settings.

“If you put a focus on it, you practice it, you work it, you drill it, I think we can grow in a lot of areas,” Tingler said.

The long-term impact
Profar's contract runs out after the season, and Pham can be a free agent after 2021. But the Padres might have their center fielder of the future in the 23-year-old Grisham, who seems to be striking the right balance between being disciplined and aggressive.

Throughout his tenure in Milwaukee, the knock on Grisham was that he was a bit too patient. Indeed, he’s chasing pitches out of the zone at an 11 percent clip – fourth-lowest among qualified hitters. But he's also launched a pair of home runs this season and owns a .971 OPS.

“That’s a really good skill set to have,” Tingler said. “At the age he’s at, we expect it to grow and get better.”

In addition to Grisham, youngsters such as Tatis and Edward Olivares stood out for their plate discipline during camp, and it carried into the season. In the Minors, OBP is being stressed more than ever. Last year, Minor Leaguers were awarded ".388 club" T-shirts for posting an OBP above the career mark of Padres legend Tony Gwynn for a calendar month.

It has been a slow process -- probably slower than Preller ever could've envisioned. But the Padres might finally have a cure for their longstanding on-base woes.

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