SAN DIEGO -- One month into the 2021 season, the Padres are running wild.
Their 35 stolen bases aren't merely the most in the Majors this season -- they're 13 more than the next closest club, entering play Sunday. The Padres have stolen more bases than the Dodgers, Giants and D-backs combined.
But 35 isn’t the important number. It's not that the Padres are stealing bases with ease. It's that they're doing it smartly. The Padres have been caught only eight times -- an 81.4% success rate that qualifies as the best among teams with more than 15 steals.
"We're going to be aggressive, we're athletic, we like to push the envelope," Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. "At the same time, we don't want to be reckless. That's a fine line."
Consider Saturday's game against the Giants. The Padres were clinging to a two-run lead in the eighth inning with Fernando Tatis Jr. and Eric Hosmer aboard. With two outs, they were running with the first pitch. Tatis slid in safely at third base, Hosmer cruised into second on the double steal. Two pitches later, Jake Cronenworth singled, giving the Padres a 6-2 lead.
Even when the Padres are thrown out -- and Wil Myers’ caught stealing on Saturday night was particularly ugly -- it tends to happen in the right situations. Their past six caught stealings have all come with two outs and a runner on first trying to swipe second – often with two strikes. The Padres can live with that kind of risk.
"We have an aggressive group," said Padres third baseman Manny Machado. "If we can get in scoring position and get that run in, we're going to take advantage of that. But we're going to pick and choose. ... It's just knowing the game. If they're going to give it to you, you take it. If they're not, you let the guy at the plate handle it."
Machado has been one of the most aggressive Padres on the basepaths this season, tied for the team lead with five steals. He's one of seven Padres with at least three stolen bases this year. Only the A's, who have four, have more than half that many.
For some historical context, the Padres' 35 steals through 28 games are the fourth most for a team since 2000. The World Series-winning 2003 Marlins of Luis Castillo and Juan Pierre are first with 48. The '09 Rays and '17 D-backs also had more.
The Padres, of course, have elite speed in their lineup, considering the likes of Tatis, Trent Grisham and Cronenworth. On top of that, veterans such as Machado and Hosmer, who don't quite have those wheels, still qualify as extremely savvy baserunners.
But it's more than that. When Tingler was hired, one of his first areas of emphasis was that the Padres would take "free 90 feet" whenever presented to them. The coaching staff has played a vital role. Associate manager Skip Schumaker and first-base coach Wayne Kirby have drawn rave reviews for their ability to pick up tells in opposing pitchers.
"They're two of the best I've ever seen at doing it," Tingler said. "I don't want to get into our process, but I'll say this: They've done an outstanding job at identifying guys we can run on and maybe some key points of their body to look at -- and certainly looking into counts."
Maybe a pitcher never throws over on 2-0. Maybe the tilt of his shoulders indicates he's going to the plate. Whatever the tell, Schumaker and Kirby watch film on opposing pitchers relentlessly before each series. They find those tells, then present it to their players in a digestible manner.
"They're doing a great job at identifying some guys we believe we can run on and some focus points," Tingler said. "[We're] seeing the guys trust that process. They play pretty fearless out on the basepaths, which is one thing that I like. But I also think it's part of our DNA. It's when we're playing our best ball."
Oh, one other benefit of a team that’s liable to run at any moment:
“The more we do that, pitchers are going to start getting nervous and they're going to start leaving cookies over the plate,” Machado said. “We're going to start taking advantage of that.”
• The Padres activated right-hander Keone Kela after his minimum 10-day stint on the injured list with right shoulder tightness. They optioned left-hander Nick Ramirez to the alternate training site. In nine outings this season, Kela owns a 4.15 ERA. Three of the four earned runs he allowed came in his final outing before the injury.
• Lefty Ryan Weathers (left arm fatigue) and righty Dinelson Lamet (right forearm tightness) both threw bullpen sessions on Sunday. The Padres have not announced any of their starters for their next series, against Pittsburgh, but Lamet and Weathers appear to be candidates. The bullpen sessions Sunday seemingly make it unlikely that either of those two would start the series opener Monday.