Padres: 1984 Revisited

The San Diego Padres have one two pennants in their relatively short history, in 1984 and 1998. The latter team featured a strong core of position players (Ken Caminiti, Tony Gwynn, Steve Finley, and Greg Vaughn hit a team record 50 home runs) and pitchers (Kevin Brown won 18 games, Andy Ashby 17, while Trevor Hoffman was the runner-up in voting for the Cy Young Award).

But since this is the the 30th anniversary of their 1984 championship, let us examine that team. How were they able to make it to the World Series? To be frank, they really weren’t very good on paper. Aside from Tony Gwynn’s first batting title, they did not have any real achievements to speak of*:

  • Four starting position players, Terry Kennedy, Garry Templeton, Steve Garvey and Kevin McReynolds had an OBP of .320 or less, with catcher Kennedy’s .284 being the worst; Luis Salazar, a bench player with 236 plate appearances, clocked in at a horrid .261;
  • up to that point in their history, Graig Nettles was the best third baseman in club history, and he was 39 when they acquired him;
  • the team leaders in home runs were Nettles and Kevin McReynolds, with 20 each;
  • only Gwynn had an OPS higher than .800. The next best was McReynolds at .782, and he missed the World Series due to injury;
  • the infield defense was very porous: Nettles had 20 errors at third base, Templeton 26 at shortstop, and Alan Wiggins was tremendously sloppy at second base with 32 miscues. In other words, they gave opposing team a shockingly high number of extra outs. Granted, Garvey had zero errors, but while he had good hands, his range was sharply reduced. In contrast, Gold Glove winner Keith Hernandez had 45 more total chances in nine fewer games. All told, the Padres committed 138 errors in 1984, almost one per game;
  • Garvey was the team leader in RBI with 86, but he hit only eight home runs;
  • starters Eric Show, Ed Whitson, and Mark Thurmond had decent seasons–though none of them dominated. But the remaining two-fifths of the rotation, Tim Lollar and Andy Hawkins, were somewhere between mediocre and downright awful: Lollar had a 3.91 ERA, yielded 105 walks, and had a 1.395 WHIP, while Hawkins had a 4.68 ERA and 1.473 WHIP.

Additionally, the performances of many of these players after 1984 speaks volumes: while Gwynn and Gossage are both in the Hall of Fame, Show was decent if inconsistent until he retired and 1991. Dave Dravecky could have been great if not for his tragic arm injury, and while McReynolds, Craig Lefferts and Whitson had pretty good careers, the rest of the team didn’t really amount to much after ’84:

  • Wiggins got busted for drugs in early ’85, was traded shortly thereafter, and then out of baseball within four years in spite of tremendous talent;
  • Templeton was clearly not the same player he had been with St. Louis;
  • left fielder Carmelo Martinez never became the power hitter the Padres thought he would be;
  • at 39 and 35, Nettles’ and Garvey’s best days were far behind them;
  • Lollar and Thurmond, 28 and 27 respectively were out of baseball just a few years later.

All told, according to Bill James’ Pythagorean Winning Percentage, they only should have won 87 games, not 92.

So then, how in the world did this team do so well, let alone win the pennant? Was it just luck? Surely one can say that they were fortunate to play the snake-bit Chicago Cubs in the then-five game NLCS, but that can’t explain their regular season success.

That being so, how did they do it? At least five factors should be attributed to their success:

First, their biggest rivals, the Dodgers, flopped. Greg Brock, Garvey’s replacement at first base, was terrible, as his .225/.319/.402 line attests, Pedro Guerrero’s power numbers were way down (only 16 home runs and 72 RBI), second baseman Steve Sax had a bad year (.243 BA, .300 OPB), and CF Kenny Landreaux frankly wasn’t very good, sporting a .295 OBP.

The rest of the Western Division wasn’t that good, either: the Cincinnati Reds were unable to rebuild following their success in the 70s, the Giants were terrible, the Astros weren’t quite as good as they would be in 1986 (when they nearly upset the New York Mets in the NLCS), and as any Atlanta Braves fans knows, there were only two things you can say about the ’80s version of their team: Dale Murphy was terrific, and the rest of the team stunk.

Second, Dick Williams was the Padres manager. He was a winner everywhere he went: in his rookie year as a skipper in 1967, he took the Red Sox to the World Series; he won back-to-back championships with Oakland in 1972-73; and he won a division title with Montreal in 1980.

With the Padres, it took a little while to get on track. In 1982-83, they finished with consecutive 81-81 records. But in 1984, Williams finally got through to his players.

Third, they had veteran leaders who knew how to win: in 1977-78 and ’81, Nettles and “Goose” Gossage played for the Yankees in the World Series against the Garvey-led Dodgers. Even though their skills had deteriorated somewhat, they still had enough left to provide leadership for one more championship season, this time for the same team.

Fourth, their bullpen was generally very good. This was before the days when a reliever became a one inning specialist, which meant that Gossage, Lefferts, and Dravecky would go two, and sometimes three innings at a time. In 62 games, Gossage tossed 102.1 innings, had 25 saves, and a 2.90 ERA/1.085 WHIP. Lefferts pitched in 62 games as well, and registered 105.2 innings with 10 saves and a 2.13 ERA/1.06 WHIP. Not to be outdone, Dravecky made 37 relief appearances (as well as 13 starts) and had eight saves, a 2.93 ERA, and 1.123 WHIP. Lastly, though he made just 19 appearances, Greg Harris had 2.70 ERA/1.255 WHIP.

Granted, Greg Booker and Jose DeLeon weren’t that great. And it should not be ignored that the bullpen failed to impress in the World Series–perhaps in part because they were overworked in the regular season. But Gossage, Lefferts, and Dravecky went a long way in keeping the ’84 Padres in games when the starters faltered.

As a footnote, it is often forgotten that Lefferts was a mere afterthought when the Padres acquired him with Carmelo Martinez just prior to the season.

Fifth, the Padres won in ’84 because of the emergence of Gwynn, the best player they have ever had. Not only did Gwynn win his first batting title, he also captured his first of five Gold Glove Awards. This was an especially impressive achievement as when Gwynn first emerged in 1982, his fielding was not highly regarded. One longtime Padre watcher recalled to me that for Tony to make up for his subpar fielding, he would have to be at least a .330 hitter. Well. Not only did he have a .338 lifetime batting average; he became an exceptional fielder as well. In short, no Tony Gwynn, no 1984 National League Pennant.

So there you have it. Those are the reasons why the ’84 Padres, in spite of some glaring weaknesses, made it to the World Series. While the ’98 version was clearly better, the ’84 friars were fighters, and they had just the right chemistry to make it work. I hope management will do something to remember that remarkable season this year.

*All stats are taken from http://www.baseball-reference.com.

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