Imagine the scene like this. As Joe Torre sits in the dugout, basking in the glow of the warm Arizona sun, a horde of reporters gather around wondering who will get the honor of the Opening Day start. Will it be Clayton Kershaw, the young lefty with the knee-buckling curve? How about Chad Billingsley? Hiroki Kuroda? A remote possibility, but not likely. As the questions mount and the temperature rises, Torre selects……Vicente Padilla.
If this scenario seems comically familiar, then you have probably seen it here
All kidding aside though, the question still remains: Why Vicente Padilla?
Whether Torre admits it or not, the real reason is likely so that Kershaw lines up to be the ‘home” Opening Day starter at Chavez Ravine. It’s a nice gesture for the current/future ace of this staff.
Additionally, Torre’s recollection of Padilla may be more positive than one may think. The pitcher that left the Texas Rangers was not the one that joined the Dodgers in late August of 2009.
Digging past the peripheral numbers of his 2009 regular season (8-6, 4.92 ERA, 18 starts for Texas; 4-0, 3.20 ERA, 8 starts for Los Angeles), Padilla bettered his numbers across the board when he landed in the West Coast. Thanks to Inside Edge, we have the numbers to back that up.
A NEW COMFORT ZONE
Vicente Padilla before and after his change of teams.
Delving a little deeper, one of the key factors in Padilla lowering his opposition’s overall batting average was his ability to lower it when he was ahead in the count. With the Rangers, opponents hit a robust .284 while Padilla was in “command” of the count. With the Dodgers, that number dropped to .127. Over the whole year, Padilla graded out exceptionally well throwing strikes (and thus getting ahead) in two of his first three pitches per batter (66 percent / MLB AVG: 60 percent).
A key component to that success was his ability to keep hitters off-balance. In 2009 as a Dodger, Padilla threw his fastball a whopping 76 percent of the time. When he got ahead in the count though, that number dropped to 67 percent.
In those same instances, his curveball usage increased from 12 percent to 15 percent while his slider rose from 10 percent to 16 percent. By utilizing his whole repertoire, the Dodgers Padilla became a much better pitcher than the Rangers version.
Selecting Padilla as the Dodgers Opening Day starter may be steeped in strategy as well. As noted above, Padilla has been pretty dominant with the Dodgers when getting ahead in the count. The Pirates don't have a good history in this regard.
While it may be common sense that most MLB players have a lower probability of success when behind in the count; some of the Pittsburgh Pirates take it to a whole other level.
With the realistic chance that Duke will struggle as much and if not more than Cedeno and Clement, that will mean that five of the Pirates likely Opening Day starters will fall below the league wide average of .208 when behind in the count. For the Pirates hitters, hoping Padilla falls behind in the count early may be their best hope. If Padilla is on, he may resemble what is associated with the Opening Day starter, an Ace.