The San Diego Padres are not off to a great start despite their 6-2 record.
Both losses have come from blown leads by the bullpen, which ranks 24th in MLB in ERA (5.40).
The second and third games against the San Francisco Giants and the series opener against the Colorado Rockies have been rocky for the Padres’ bullpen. They blew a lead in all three games, losing on a walk-off home run on July 29 before winning thanks to late offensive surges on July 30 and 31.
There are a few reasons to explain this disappointing start for the bullpen.
The starters have been productive in the box score, posting the fourth-best ERA (2.68) in baseball in 40.1 innings pitched.
However, one number that stands out is their 1.21 WHIP. This causes more stressful innings for the starters, which shortens their outings and forces the bullpen to pitch more innings.
In fact, manager Jayce Tingler said before the series opener against the Rockies that he would love to unleash his young starters for more innings but he needs them to have easier innings so they don’t stress their arms and can throw for more than 91 pitches. He’s a believer that pitches under duress don’t count the same as pitches with less pressure.
The closer position was supposed to be the strength of this bullpen in 2020. After all, Kirby Yates was an All-Star last year and had 41 saves in 44 opportunities while only allowing eight runs.
Yates has zero saves so far in two opportunities after being yanked both times for nearly blowing the lead. His ERA is 15.43.
Former All-Star Drew Pomeranz has earned two saves after being the only reliable bullpen arm through seven games. On July 31, he came in with the bases loaded and a one-run lead after Yates gave up three runs; Pomeranz earned his second save. The lefty has not allowed a run in 4.1 innings pitched and has a 0.46 WHIP.
The Rest of the ‘Pen
The bullpen as a whole has allowed 20 runs in 31.2 innings pitched, including five home runs.
Lefty Matt Strahm has allowed go-ahead home runs in back-to-back appearances. Hitters are batting .281 against him.
Craig Stammen was supposed to be the ideal eighth-inning man to hold the lead for Yates. That has not been the case in close games so far as all three runs he’s allowed have blown a Padres lead.
The new manager for the San Diego Padres has been pushing all the right buttons on offense this season.
But just like with all aspects of the game, he deserves his share of the blame for the bullpen issues, even if it’s only a small piece of the pie.
The main issue with his management of the bullpen so far is how long he waits to take struggling pitchers out. In a shortened 60-game season, you can’t wait for players to “figure it out.” You have to be aggressive with your bullpen to win close games.
The offense is bailing him out so far, but Tingler will need to find a way to better use his bullpen arms and hide any weaknesses that remain over the coming weeks.
Hedges is the better defensive catcher and is more reliable with the bullpen arms because of the way he calls games. But when the team needs late offense, he is often pinch-hit for by Mejía because Hedges is zero-for-15.
This strategy worked on July 31 because Mejia sparked a rally that gave the Padres the lead again, but then the bullpen arms struggled and almost blew it. That could be because of their lack of trust in his game management and defensive skills.
The only way Mejía can be in the lineup is if his hitting outweighs the drop-off you get from Hedges’s superb defense.
This issue won’t go away until one of them starts hitting the ball consistently or if Mejía can start managing the bullpen arms.
If the struggles continue, the Padres have No. 4 prospect Luis Campusano who could be ready to handle the everyday catching duties by 2021 if his defense catches up to his bat.
The Padres will have some interesting bullpen decisions to make when the rosters are cut from 30 to 28 and then to 26 over the next three weeks.
The Padres are off to a great start, but if they want to continue winning and make a playoff push, they need their bullpen to start pitching better because that’s their Achilles heel through one week of the MLB season.