When a team doesn't hit, they look flat. Plain and simple. The natural gut reaction? We need to get more athletic, we need more speed, we need to create runs.
There are a lot of fans who have already expressed these feelings, and I empathize with every one of you. I've had these feelings many times during my career (though not so much in Cleveland in the mid-90's). In this particular case, though, our gut reaction doesn't serve us well.
Speed Versus Power
I really shouldn't say "versus". I should probably use the "balance" of speed and power, because the world is more gray than black and white. However, for this exercise I'll do my best to keep them separate for the sake of clarity. In an ideal world all of our players would have BOTH speed and power. Trust me, we're not averse to having speed on our club. However, when you have to choose...
Earl Weaver had some interesting things to say about team speed, but I'm not going to link to the particular audio clip (which can be found on youtube) because this is a family show. Instead, we'll have to stick to some, um, less colorful analysis.
Since 2004 (opening of Petco), there have been 14 NL teams who have won at least 89 games, and there have been 14 NL teams who have won 71 or fewer games. What is a common characteristic of the 14 winning teams? Every single team that won at least 89 games out-homered their opponents over the course of the season. Every single one. Of the 14 teams at the bottom, just 3 out-homered their opponents. So, out-homering your opponent does not guarantee success. However, getting out-homered generally leads to tee-times in October.
Now we'll examine the same teams as it relates to SB's. If you take the net stolen bases* (SB minus CS), the top 14 teams stole more bases than they allowed on seven occasions, just 50% of the time. The bottom 14 teams stole more bases than they allowed six times, 43% of the time. So, stealing more bases than your opponent indicates... very little. Indeed, the Padres have been negative on the stolen base scale in each of our four seasons in Petco - all winning campaigns - and our best stolen base season was our worst record (82-80) while our worst stolen base season was our best record (89-74).
Ok, ok, but maybe I'm cherry-picking the teams here, so let's take a look at every team in the NL since 2004 and run a correlation to winning percentage. The correlation between net home runs (home runs hit minus home runs allowed) and winning percentage is about .56 - surprisingly strong considering it's just one statistic that occurs roughly twice per game. The correlation between net stolen bases and winning percentage over that time frame? .19, a level which is referred to as "insignificant". Basically, no relationship exists.
Conclusion - power is more necessary than speed.
Speed and Defense
Even if power impacts winning and losing more than stolen bases, speed can manifest itself in other ways, including defense. We can look at this observation from two angles:
1) Do all good defenders have speed?
2) Are all speedy players good defenders?
The answer to question #1 is pretty obvious. No. Some do, some don't, which is much like our analysis of team speed and the lack of correlation with winning percentage. Anecdotally, two of the better defenders on the Padres, Adrian Gonzalez and Khalil Greene, will never be mistaken for Herb Washington.
The answer to question #2 is again a mixed bag. I'm not going to name names, but I'm sure all of you reading this can name players who are fast but aren't good defenders. The reason for this is that good defense relies as much on skill and instinct as it does on raw athletic ability. Sure, speed helps in the outfield, but average speed with perfect routes to the ball will often trump great speed combined with poor routes. Speed with good routes? There aren't many of those guys out there, and they're winning gold gloves. Ones who can also hit? They're getting MVP votes.
Conclusion - speed can enhance defensive ability, but speed does not equal good defense.
My guess is that some of you are saying, "But speed can also impact other parts of the game, like batting average and doubles." You're absolutely right. However, in an earlier posting we established that Petco Park isn't batting average friendly. Furthermore, the Park is as tough on doubles as it has been on home runs. The fact of the matter is that despite the dimensions of the ballpark, fly balls go to die in Petco, which is also why defense in CF may not be quite as important as it would initially appear. I guess we can blame the perfect weather in San Diego.
We, as an organization, do not turn a blind eye to speed and athleticism. We like it. When I was in Oakland Billy Beane always used to say, "I have nothing against stealing bases. I love stealing bases as long as we're safe." In a perfect world all of the Padres players would have power, speed, and defensive ability. Unfortunately, there is no perfect player out there, so we need to make choices and attempt to balance the team such that it is competitive in every important area (we were in the top five in the NL in defensive efficiency in both 2006 and 2007 despite a lack of team speed).
The bottom line is that the best way to create runs is to get on base and hit for power. We have done neither so far this year, and that, Padres fans, is our problem. Nevertheless, we have been better of late, outside of yesterday, and are optimistic that we'll continue to do a better job in both departments as the season continues.
There are two more discussions that should occur, though both deserve their own post. The first is the distinction between correlation and causation - a distinction that is particulary important when dealing with the complexity of baseball. The second regards our need as educated/experienced fans to see the game played the "right" way, with the correct fundamentals. I'll get to each of these eventually - plenty to discuss!
*This isn't the best formula for team speed or even stolen bases, as one caught stealing is more destructive than one stolen base is additive, but it serves the purpose of the exercise here.