How the Padres could deliver playoff chase chaos

Seven-game win streak keeps San Diego alive, barely

September 22nd, 2023

There’s no way around it: The 2023 San Diego Padres season has been a letdown. For the most hyped and most expensive team in franchise history, coming off a surprise run to the 2022 National League Championship Series, this was finally the year that they’d dethrone their big brothers to the north and earn their first division title since Mike Piazza was their primary catcher. (Seriously. It was 2006.)

It didn’t work. They lost their first two games of the season, and haven’t been more than three games over .500 since May. They seemingly bottomed out at the end of August when they fell 11 games under, to 62-73. This despite having an NL Cy Young Award front runner in Blake Snell and despite outscoring their opponents by a wide margin. (They're currently +82 there -- better than the Phillies, Brewers or Blue Jays, and a number more representative of an 85-68 team; instead, they're 75-78.) All the underlying metrics have continued to say that they should have been better -- but they weren’t, largely due to almost incomprehensible records of 0-11 in extra innings and 7-22 in one-run games.

Those results have, understandably, led to questions about factors such as clubhouse chemistry and organizational culture. It may yet be that there’s a franchise-wide reckoning to come this winter.

But if it’s possible for this team to do anything quietly, then it’s this: They’ve quietly won seven consecutive games. The element of luck behind performance with runners in scoring position has slowly tilted their way – after posting MLB's second-worst batting average with RISP for the first five months, it’s now sixth-best in September. The Padres may be buried, but they’re not officially dead.

Is it too little, too late? Probably. But the Padres aren’t eliminated yet, either, and their end-of-season schedule is extremely soft. They still have the opportunity to do the funniest thing ever, in what remains a muddled National League Wild Card race. If it’s felt like a 1-in-100 chance that a season with this many positive underlying numbers could go as poorly as it has, then let’s also say the 1% playoff odds they still possess give them that same 1-in-100 chance for a path back to October. If it didn’t make sense that they could be so bad over five months, it doesn’t have to make sense that a bunch of stars could play well for two weeks, either.

With nine games left in the season, here’s the Padres' path to absolute maximum chaos.

Where the Wild Card stands right now

The Phillies haven’t officially clinched a Wild Card spot yet, but their entrance is nearly certain, so we’ll hand them one of the three spots and look at the rest of the field.


(If the season ended today, Miami holds the tiebreaker over Chicago for the third NL Wild Card.)

Two remaining spots. Six teams with a prayer. One path to insanity. The Padres don’t have to make it work every time, they just have to make it work one time. They need these three things to work out.

1) The Padres have to win – and the remaining schedule is in their favor.

Obviously. We’re only here because of the seven-game winning streak, and anything beyond this requires the Padres to keep riding a hot streak. We won’t say they have to win all nine remaining games, ultimately ending on a 16-game winning streak, but it has to be pretty close. Fortunately for San Diego, look at how soft the remaining schedule is.

  • 3 vs. Cardinals
  • 3 @ Giants
  • 3 @ White Sox

The Cardinals are in last place. The Giants are collapsing (6-13 in September, and 18-28 since Aug. 1), and confront San Diego with its only remaining head-to-head opportunity against a competitor. The White Sox are on their way to 100 losses. This is not exactly the Mariners ending their season entirely against the Astros and Rangers. This is about as friendly a remaining schedule as you could want.

If the Padres go 8-1, they’d be 83-79. If they go 7-2, they’d go 82-80, and that’s probably not good enough. So let’s call it 83-79. What’s the path to an 83-win team not being left out of the postseason?

2) Knowing the tiebreaker situation is absolutely vital.

Since there’s no longer any Game 163 tiebreaker games, any ties for playoff spots will be decided by mathematical tiebreakers. The first is head-to-head record; the second is intradivision record; it gets deep after that, and you can read about all of them here. Since the Padres are basically done with playing these other teams, aside from the Giants, then we already know whom they’ll hold tiebreakers against or not.

San Diego would win a tiebreaker against these three clubs:

  • Marlins (4-2 head-to-head)
  • Reds (tied head-to-head; would win second tiebreaker)
  • Giants* (6-4 head-to-head)

(*With those three games remaining, it’s possible that they lose the tiebreaker to the Giants if they get swept, but if that happens, none of the rest of this matters anyway.)

San Diego would lose a tiebreaker against these two clubs:

  • Cubs (lost head-to-head 4-3)
  • D-backs (lost head-to-head 7-6)

So the Padres can look at Miami, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, and say: It’s fine to tie these clubs. They have to look at Arizona and Chicago and say: A tie isn’t good enough. But they’re six games behind Arizona; there is almost no possible scenario where they finish ahead of the D-backs, which actually makes the path forward somewhat clear.

3) What has to happen for the Padres to make the playoffs is…

They desperately need a team who bests them in a tiebreaker to clear out of the way, so it would have to be that Arizona gets the second Wild Card spot, and the Cubs continue to fall apart and win no more than 82 games.

Then, our presumably 8-1 San Diego gets to 83 wins and wins a tiebreaker with one or both of the Reds and/or Marlins. (We’ll assume the Giants aren’t in the mix, in part because of their own poor play, and because they have seven games against the Dodgers remaining, but also because they’ll have had to lose at least two games to the Padres for this to be a possibility at all.)

So that’s the path, where the Padres have 83 wins, the Cubs have 82 at most, and the Marlins and Reds 83 or fewer. Can that happen? Look at each of those team’s situations, showing the remaining series.

The teams they lose the tiebreaker to:

Arizona (@NYY, @CHW, vs. HOU): Despite a somewhat odd season-ending stretch against American League teams, the D-backs have a big advantage here by having already reached 81 wins, two more than any other non-Phillies contender. It doesn’t help that the Astros will likely have much to play for in the final series, but Arizona holds a tiebreaker over the Padres and the Cubs.

What the Padres need: It probably doesn’t matter.

Chicago (vs. COL, @ATL, @MIL): It’s been a bad stretch for the Cubs, who have lost 10 of 13, including six of seven to the D-backs this month, in part because the reliable Justin Steele has struggled. They own a tiebreaker against almost no one other than the Padres. This is the key team for San Diego fans to watch, because of that tiebreaker. A season-ending road trip through Atlanta and Milwaukee is not exactly an easy task.

What the Padres need: Cubs go 3-6 or worse

The teams they win the tiebreaker over:

Cincinnati (vs. PIT, @CLE, @STL): The Reds have their own seemingly soft schedule, and they’ve been a very-up-and-down club. Cincinnati is 20-26 since the start of August, and 6-7 over the last two weeks, but it has also played the most games in the Majors, so the Padres are only three back in the loss column. Since San Diego has the tiebreaker, they just need to tie the Reds, not exceed them.

What the Padres need: Reds go 4-4 or worse.

Miami (vs. MIL, @NYM, @PIT): The Marlins seemed like they were sputtering out with a 19-32 record across July and August, but taking two of three against both the Phillies and Dodgers this month, as well as sweeping the Braves, has kept them in the race. The season-ending road trip will be interesting, because the Marlins have been considerably better at home (.564) this year than on the road (.467).

What the Padres need: Marlins go 4-5 or worse.

All of which means: The Padres need to keep winning, and the exact right teams need to lose most (but, importantly, not all) of their games.

It’s an unlikely scenario, as it should be, because a season-long run of uninspiring play is what put them here. Then again, this is a team that has allowed the sixth-fewest runs and scored the 14th-most. It has Snell at the peak of his powers, Josh Hader with a 1.21 ERA, Juan Soto with 32 homers and a .909 OPS, and a 20/20 likely Gold Glove season from Fernando Tatis, Jr. It never made sense they’d play that badly. It might make more sense if they made a shocking run now.

It’s far-fetched, sure. It’s not impossible. Let chaos reign.