Going into September of 2021, the San Diego Padres appeared to be following the arc that was expected of them. As that final month of the regular season began, the Padres were 10 games over .500 and in the playoff position in the National League.
That was broadly how things figured to be. The resurgent Padres were coming off a postseason appearance in the abbreviated 2020 season, during which they posted the highest win percentage in franchise history. The following offseason, general manager A.J. Preller once again took bold steps to fortify the roster. If anything, being 10 games over .500 going into the final month of the regular season was a modest undershot of expectations.
Things, however, swiftly got worse. The Padres from Sept. 1 through the end of the 2021 regular season went 7-21 and were outscored by their opponents by a margin of 53 runs. They were eliminated from postseason contention with more than a week left in the regular season, and soon after manager Jayce Tingler was fired after just two seasons on the job. As well, Preller's job security seemingly took a hit.
A year later, the Padres, now helmed by manager Bob Melvin, found themselves in a bit better pre-September straits – 14 games above .500 heading into the month and in playoff position. The hope in San Diego, of course, is that the stretch drive doesn't occasion another 2021-style collapse. In addition to having a surer hand in the dugout in Melvin, the Padres are also at the waterline at 3-3 Since the calendar flipped to September. Moreover, looking forward there are three good reasons why a repeat of last year's meltdown probably isn't in the offing and a return to the playoffs is. Now let's have a look at those reasons for optimism in San Diego.
1. The schedule is easier
This season, the Padres' remaining opponents have an average win percentage of .548. That's a tough slate, but it's nothing compared to last year's gauntlet. Going into September 2021, the Padres' remaining opponents had an average win percentage of .602 (!). In this year's terms, that's a bit like playing the Cardinals and Mets for an entire month.
Down that stretch last year, they played the 107-win Giants and 106-win Dodgers a total of 16 times in September, and given how contested the race was in the NL West those two juggernauts were trying their best to win every game. In all the Padres last September played 25 of 28 games against teams that wound up in the postseason.
On another level, the Padres in 2021 played just 11 of their final 28 games at home. This year, however, they'll play 18 of their last 30 games at home. The road ahead isn't exactly easy, but it's a far cry from what they faced during the September 2021 meltdown.
2. The rotation is in better shape
Right now, the San Diego rotation is at full strength as we're toe-deep into September:
That's in sharp contrast to late last season. Take a look at how the Padres divvied up their 28 September starts in 2021:
- Darvish, six starts
- Musgrove, six starts
- Vince Velasquez, four starts
- Jake Arrieta, three starts
- Snell, two starts
- Chris Paddack, two starts
- Reiss Knehr, two starts
- Pedro Avila, one start
- Ryan Weathers, one start
- Pierce Johnson, one start (bullpen game)
In terms of rotation stability, the Padres from Sept. 1 onward last year used as many starting pitchers – 10 – as they have all season to date in 2022. Those five aforementioned members of the current rotation this season have combined for an ERA of 3.86 and a K/BB ratio of 3.69. That includes offseason acquisition Manaea, who has endured a brutal second half, is getting skipped the next turn through the rotation, and almost certainly will be in the bullpen for the postseason (assuming the Padres make it there). The Padres didn't have Clevinger in 2021 as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, and if you remove Darvish, Musgrove, and Snell from the calculus, then you find that the remaining pitchers who made starts in September of 2021 combined for an ERA of 5.55 that year. Barring a late rash of injuries, they won't be giving spot starts to the likes of, say, decline-phase Jake Arrieta with the season on the line.
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3. There's no Fernando Tatis Jr., but there is Juan Soto (and Ha-Seong Kim)
Superstar shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. has not played this season and will not play this season, first because of his offseason wrist injury and then because of his 80-game suspension for a PED violation. Tatis was a steady presence in the San Diego lineup last September, but that obviously won't be the case this time around. The good news for the Padres is that Juan Soto, their headline-grabbing deadline addition, is in the fold. While Soto hasn't quite been in vintage form since the blockbuster trade, he's been quite productive, and he can find his level at any moment.
As well, Tatis' replacement at shortstop, Ha-Seong Kim, he's been excellent in 2022. He boasts a 107 OPS+ at the plate, which is especially strong production for a shortstop, and he's been a notable asset in the field. Kim ranks in the 86th percentile when it comes to Statcast's Outs Above Average, and Baseball Info Solutions ranks him 10th among shortstops with 7.0 runs saved in the field. Add it all up, and Kim's current WAR of 4.0 is second only to Manny Machado on the Padres this season. That's not peak Tatis, but it's not far off.
So for the trio of reasons above, a repeat of last year's stretch-drive miseries isn't likely. Possible, yes, but signs at the moment point to the Padres getting back to the playoffs in 2022.