MLB trends: Padres' clutch problems, Nationals' defensive work and Carlos Correa's double play disasters
The the dog days of August are coming to an end and soon the postseason races will heat up in September. Four-and-a-half weeks remain in MLB's regular season. There is still plenty to be decided with a little more than one month to play.
Our bi-weekly series breaking down various trends across the league continues Wednesday with a look at one team's inability to come through in the clutch, another team's defensive improvement, and one star's trouble with double plays. Two weeks ago, we examined Bobby Witt Jr.'s breakout, Christian Yelich's return to MVP form, and the league-wide decline in errors.
Barring a miraculous September, the San Diego Padres and their franchise record $280.3 million competitive balance tax payroll will miss the postseason. They are 62-71 following Tuesday's 10th-inning loss to the Cardinals and have the tenth-worst record in baseball. The Padres are seven games behind the third and final wild-card spot with four teams ahead of them.
San Diego's poor record comes with a strong plus-55 run differential. It is far and away the best run differential among teams with losing records -- the Guardians are next best at minus-16 -- and a plus-55 run differential suggests the Padres should be closer to 72-61, not 62-71. It seems impossible to have a record this bad while outscoring your opponents by that much, but the Padres are doing it.
How have the Padres managed this? Because, for lack of a better term, they are incredibly unclutch. They don't win close games. Here are some numbers on San Diego's trending-toward-lost season:
Clutch, which is available at FanGraphs, is a fun little stat that compares performance in high-leverage situations to performance in all other situations. For example, Javier Báez leads all players with 2.08 hitting clutch, essentially because he has a .920 OPS in high-leverage situations and a .549 OPS in all other situations. The calculation isn't quite that simple, but that's the idea.
Clutch tells you what has happened, not what will happen, just like a team's record in one-run or extra-inning games. The Padres being 0-11 in extra-inning games -- 0-11! -- does not mean they're doomed to lose extra-inning games the rest of the season. It just means they've lost all 11 of their extra inning games to date, which has put an enormous dent into their postseason hopes.
Just think, if the Padres had gone 5-6 in extra-inning games instead of 0-11, they'd only be two games back of a postseason spot. Do that and go 10-17 in one-run games instead of 6-21, and they're in a postseason spot. All these close losses, games that are essentially a coin flip, have done the Padres in. The inability to eke out those close wins has doomed this team.
And the thing is, the Padres have players who have proven to be very clutch. Juan Soto had a 1.178 OPS in the World Series as a 20-year-old. Xander Bogaerts has two World Series rings and earned the first as a 20-year-old while playing out of position. Manny Machado debuted as a 19-year-old with all the pressure of being a top prospect. These guys have done it before.
Sometimes it's just not your year though, and you don't get The Big Hit or make The Big Pitch, and it sinks your season. Just a year ago, the Padres went 30-17 in one-run games and 12-5 in extra-inning games. They can win those close games, they just haven't this season. The failures of the 2023 Padres comes down to their inability to perform in close games. That's all there is to it.
At 26-17, the Nationals have the Nationals League's fifth-best record since the All-Star break, and they are 9-2-0 in their last 11 series. C.J. Abrams is breaking out, Lane Thomas looks like a keeper, MacKenzie Gore has flashed his potential, and there are interesting arms in the bullpen. The club's big second half earned manager Davey Martinez a new contract extension and GM Mike Rizzo is reportedly in talks for the same.
Washington went 35-54 in the first half and, when a team turns things around in-season as much as the Nationals, there's never one single reason. It's always multiple things coming together. Among those multiple things: improved defense. The Nationals have done a much better job catching the ball in the second half. Here are the numbers on their glovework:
Outs above average
Defensive efficiency is a fancy way of saying the Nationals have turned 71.8% of batted balls into outs in the second half. The MLB average is .691 and the Nationals went from a bit better than average in the first half to comfortably better than the average in the second half. Outs above average, or OAA, points a prettier picture. OAA says Washington went from terrible to great defensively.
A good defense helps a team in so many ways. It's more balls turned into outs, it's not giving away extra bases, it's not forcing your pitchers to throw more pitches and thus tax your bullpen. A good defense alone won't make a team a contender, but a good defense will elevate a team, and a bad defense can certainly sink a season. Washington's turnaround started with improved defense.
The Nationals still have a ways to go to be competitive in a division that features the powerhouse Braves, the big-spending Mets, and the Bryce Harper-led Phillies. They need more pitching (who doesn't?) and two legitimate middle-of-the-order bats, among other things. For now though, they've made strides defensively, and they've made them in-season. Catching the ball goes a long way.
"The spectacular plays, when they happen, it's awesome," Martinez told the Washington Post earlier this year. "The routine plays, they have to be made 10 out of 10 times. That's what we love right now. They turn double plays. They move their feet. They get to balls that they should get to. It's been a lot of fun to watch."
By any measure, this is not the season Carlos Correa and the Minnesota Twins envisioned. Sure, the Twins have a comfortable lead in the AL Central, but Correa is hitting an underwhelming .224/.307/.395 in Year 1 of his six-year, $200 million contract. He returned to Minnesota only after more lucrative contracts with the Giants and Mets fell apart over medical concerns.
Correa, who is still only 28, has been better in recent weeks, so perhaps his bat is coming around at just the right time. There is one issue that has lingered all season, however. Correa has grounded into a ton of double plays. He leads the league with 27 double plays -- Ty France is a distant second with 24 -- nine more than his previous career high (18 in 2022).
Correa is on pace for 33 double plays, which would be the most in a season since Billy Butler banged into 32 double plays in 2010. No player has hit into 30 double plays since Casey McGehee in 2014. With a runner on first and less than two outs, Correa has hit into a double play a staggering 27.1% of the time. That is astronomical.
Here is the double play rate leaderboard (min. 75 plate appearances with a runner on first and less than two outs):
No hitter with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title has hit into a double play in 27% of their opportunities since Yadier Molina in 2009. No one has done it even 25% of the time since Yunel Escobar in 2016. Entering 2023, Correa's career double play rate was 12.3%. Higher than league average, sure, but not outrageous. His double play rate has more doubled this year.
Correa's overall ground ball rate is 47.0% this season, which is higher than his 45.6% career average but not extremely so. This would be only the fifth highest ground ball rate in his nine MLB seasons. Correa is, however, hitting more ground balls with men on base. He's also not running well because he's playing through plantar fasciitis. The numbers:
More ground balls with men on base and less foot speed is a recipe for a lot of double plays. Correa is aware of it too. Earlier this month he gave an honest assessment when asked whether there's a specific reason he's hit into so many: "Yeah, I'm slow as f--k," he told MLB.com. Not sure you could put it any better than that.
For the Twins, they have to hope their 28-year-old Platinum Glove-winning shortstop hasn't suddenly morphed into one of the most double play prone hitters in recent memory. His ground ball rate with men on base has fluctuated over the years, so, with any luck, it'll drop next season, and Correa will also be able to run better after the plantar fasciitis heals over the winter.
Right now though, Correa is hitting into double plays at a rate not seen in over a decade. It hasn't held the Twins back in the sense they are still leading their division and have a 93.0% chance to win the AL Central, per SportsLine, but Minnesota needs Correa to be better than he has been. They need more production overall and part of that avoiding those rally-killing double plays.One-run gamesExtra-inning gamesHitting clutchPitching clutchOuts above averageDefensive efficiencyCarlos Correa, Twins:Alejandro Kirk, Blue Jays:Ty France, Mariners:Enrique Hernández, Red Sox/Dodgers:Masataka Yoshida, Red Sox:MLB average:20192020202120222023