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Monday, April 26, 2010
FanGraphs: San Diego's secret stars


The San Diego Padres lost Sunday. This qualifies as news because lately they’ve been playing like the best team in baseball. Before Sunday’s loss, the Padres had won eight consecutive games, including sweeps of divisional foes Arizona and San Francisco. And in ESPN.com's latest MLB Power Rankings, San Diego is No. 7.

Although superstar first baseman Adrian Gonzalez is doing his thing, hitting home runs in each of the past four games, the key to the Padres' early success is a bunch of no-names.

Chase Headley, a former hotshot prospect who previously struggled to adjust to the big leagues, has found his stroke in April. His .371 batting average easily paces the team. Although the third baseman is not a huge power threat, he has seven extra-base hits and six stolen bases, providing all-around value. Based on FanGraphs' wins above replacement statistic, Headley has been worth 1.1 wins (compared with Gonzalez’s 1.0), making him the team’s co-MVP through the first three weeks of the season.

Headley isn’t the only low-profile guy carrying his weight. Outfielder Will Venable has provided some much-needed power to a lineup that lacks punch beyond Gonzalez. His .262 average might not look like much on the surface, but nine of his 16 hits have gone for extra bases, giving him a ridiculous .312 isolated slugging percentage on the season. (Isolated slugging is simply slugging minus batting average, which allows us to measure the power output of a player by excluding singles.) For comparison, Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers posted a .303 ISO last season.

Wrapping up the trio of unheralded early-season Padres hitting stars is catcher Nick Hundley. Like Venable, his .262 batting average isn’t all that impressive, but instead of supplying power, Hundley is busting out the walking stick. He’s drawn eight free passes in 13 games, driving his on-base percentage up to .380, a remarkably high number for a backstop. Although the base on balls is a less sexy way to derive value, there is no more important offensive skill than the ability to get on base.

It's unlikely that Headley, Venable and Hundley will continue to perform like stars because none of them has a track record that suggests he can sustain his performance. But if you’re looking for the reason the Padres are in first place, look no further than these three. And considering none of the members of the trio is older than 27, it's possible they've turned a corner in their development. If they all continue on their current career-year course, the NL West will be a lot more interesting.

Dave Cameron is a writer for FanGraphs.