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Padres are actually the swinging Friars so far in ’24

Manny Machado was talking about what he has seen from the Padres offense in 2024.

He mentioned the comebacks and the big innings.

Among the things he listed, rather offhandedly, was something that seemed a bit out of nowhere and out of place.

“We’re a swinging team,” he said, “so we swing if we see it.”

Wait! What?

The Padres? Swinging?

Yes, they have so far this season literally been the swinging Friars.

Certainly in relation to past iterations and even in relation to the rest of the league, the Padres are taking more hacks.

A team that saw the third-most pitches per plate appearances over the past two seasons this year is seeing the sixth fewest this season. A team that led MLB in called strike percentage last year (and cumulatively since 2020) is now ranked ninth. A team that struck out looking more than all but eight teams last year has struck out looking less than all but eight teams this year. And a team that swung at just 25.6 percent of the pitches it saw outside the zone from 2020-23, second lowest in the majors in that span, ranks eighth this season at 29.4 percent.

(Those percentage variances might seem small, but over the course of a season a couple percentage points could mean a difference of a couple hundred swings outside the zone and maybe double that inside the zone.)

It is too early to read much into most numbers. It is far too early to make anything of the Padres having a significantly higher batting average and slugging percentage than they finished with last season.

But the underlying numbers regarding swings and takes do absolutely indicate a new aggressiveness.

“All the work that we do is about hitting,” new hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said. “It’s not about taking pitches. It’s about putting us in a good position to hit fastballs in the zone. If it’s not there, it’s OK to take. But we are about hitting.”

The Padres are swinging at roughly the same number of fastballs in the heart of the strike zone this year as in recent years, but they are hitting 13 points better this season versus the past three and slugging 28 points better.

“We preach being aggressive against the fastball,” Rodriguez said. “When you get ready early, you recognize.”

Few (if any) of the tenets Padres hitters are putting into practice this season are revolutionary. Rodriguez and new assistant hitting coaches Mike McCoy and Pat O’Sullivan have not invented an unprecedented approach to hitting. They aren’t saying much (if anything) differently than Ryan Flaherty or any of the other dozen-plus hitting coaches and assistant hitting coaches who have worked with Padres hitters over the past decade.

Selective aggressiveness is a nearly universal concept in MLB. As in, see your pitch and hit it.

There are perhaps a few new talking points, a couple different emphases.

But it does seem they are preaching to a more receptive congregation — a group that includes some young players who are eager to learn and veterans that just came off a monumentally disappointing season. In 2023, all but one of the returning regulars hit well below their career norms. Further, the Padres’ record in one-run games was among the worst in history, suggesting that a base hit or even a productive out here or there could have made a significant difference for a team that fell two victories shy of the playoffs.

“I think it’s just what they’ve presented us,” Cronenworth said, “and all the guys have bought into the team aspect of baseball.”

It follows that the departure of Trent Grisham and Juan Soto, two of the league’s most selective hitters, would decrease the number of pitches the Padres see.

But they do not have a single player ranked among the top 65 in pitches per plate appearance this season. And No.66 is rookie Jackson Merrill at 4.08 pitches per plate appearance. They had four players ranked in the top 50 last season, including Ha-Seong Kim at eighth (4.20) and Jurickson Profar at 16th (4.20).

Profar is “Exhibit A” in the new aggressiveness.

He has been among the most selective batters in MLB over the course of his previous 10 seasons. If there was a Padres player who could be expected to work a plate appearance to eight or nine or more pitches, even more than Soto, it was Profar.

Now, he is far more likely to swing at the first pitch than ever before in his career.

His 37.7 percent swing rate on the first pitch is more than 10 percentage points higher than in his career prior to this season. He is batting .667 on 0-0 pitches, .529 when putting one of the first two pitches of an at-bat in play and .333 overall.

He has both an exceptional eye and ability to make contact. He is just putting those talents to better use so far in 2024.

He smiled widely when the difference in his approach was brought up recently. He spoke of a winter working on it with Fernando Tatis Jr. under the tutelage of Tatis’ father.

“We talk about if the pitch is there, we’re raking,” Profar said. “… I trust my eyes. My eyes will tell me if it’s a ball. But if the pitch is in my zone, I’m killing it.”

Jake Cronenworth changed how he held his hands during the offseason and entered the season having renewed his focus on process over results. Last year, a subpar campaign at the plate, he ranked 49th in pitches per plate appearance. He then spent spring training walking, doing so 10 times in 40 plate appearances. But he did so not with the intent of walking but with a determination to swing at the right pitches. He is seeing fewer pitches, swinging more and hitting significantly better through 15 games than he did during any such stretch the first four months of his 2023.

He sums up the ‘24 Padres’ hitting philosophy this way:

“Your quality at-bat may not come on eight pitches. It may come on the first pitch. It’s being ready to hit, and if you get your pitch, take your shot. Nobody’s gonna be mad at you if you line out on the first pitch of the inning. You took a shot, you took a good swing.”

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