Let’s give another round of applause to the 2020 Padres, who bashed more grand slams and stole more bases than any team in Major League Baseball last year across the 60-game, pandemic-shortened season.
The rousing breakthrough the ‘20 Padres achieved in a miniature season — following nine consecutive losing seasons — didn’t lead to any Champagne parties this year from the 2021 Padres. But, hey, wasn’t the ’20 gang a blast? No, really. A blast.
Slam. Slam. Slam. Slam.
Nobody hits a grand slam in four consecutive games, unless they’re swatting softballs.
The Pads did it in August. No, really. The Padres, of all teams, fashioned the longest slam streak in MLB history. The Yankees never slammed in four straight games. The Big Red Machine never did it. Nor did the Big Blue Wrecking Crew, the Pittsburgh Lumber Company, the infamous Bash Brothers of Oakland or any recent assemblage of launch-angle masters.
Fernando Tatis Jr. Wil Myers. Manny Machado. Eric Hosmer. Across four August games, they each hit a slam — more slams than any other National League offense mustered in last year’s 60-game sprint. If the ’20 Padres “juiced” bases, a party loomed. The Padres didn’t create a ton of bases-loaded chances, ranking 14th. But their seven slams led MLB by a large margin. The runner-up — Oakland — had four. The whopping 1.226 OPS the Gaslamp Maulers produced was MLB’s best with the bags full.
Not only did a good chunk of the 2020 Padres lineup slug like Greg Vaughn, several players ran the bases like Rickey Henderson. The team swiped nearly two bases per game. And their success rate (80.8 percent) cleared the efficiency standard set by baseball quants.
Pitching? The Padres finished third in ERA among 15 NL teams. Defense? They landed 13th of 30 teams in the Fielding Bible’s rankings for runs saved. In runs allowed, they placed third in the league.
It was a clean sweep of all phases, producing 37 victories against 23 defeats, good for a sparkling .617 winning rate that trailed only last year’s World Series participants.
If you can look past the boulder-sized asterisk denoting 60 games, the 2020 team’s winning percentage rose to first in franchise annals for a season.
But, come on. Through no fault of any team’s, it was a season in name only.
Sixty games is to 162 games what a grapefruit is to a watermelon. Not much point in comparing them.
Right down to the brown-and-gold uniforms the franchise introduced last year, the ’20 team earned top-tier Padres status for style and entertainment.
In the win-loss column, they fell into a lot more company. Nine other Padres clubs matched or exceeded a 37-23 record across 60 games. If that’s a stunning fact, blame the 162-game season. It engulfs 10-week stretches. Know that five other Padres teams — in 1984, 1989, 1996, 1998 and 2010 — amassed 38 victories or more across 60 games and four others matched the Slam Diego bunch by going 37-23. The latter group is anonymous today for two reasons: Sixty games didn’t fill half the bucket, and none of those teams reached the playoffs.
One of those four — the 2012 squad — finished with a losing record (76-88) despite its still-hallucinatory 37-23 run between July 14 and Sept 18. If you can name the top five starting pitchers on that team, you deserve free food and drink at all future Padres games.
(Here they are: Clayton Richard, Edinson Volquez, Anthony Bass, Jason Marquis, Eric Stults.)
For all the good times they generated, the ‘20 Padres ran out of starting pitching when the season ended. Slamming their way past the Cardinals as they did was impressive, but it wasn’t a reliable formula to win 13 postseason games. Much of the pitching staff was on fumes when the Dodgers completed the second-round, three-game sweep.
General Manager A.J. Preller traded for three frontline pitchers last offseason. It wasn’t enough. The starting pitching fell well short. Neither the farm system nor the summer trade market provided much-needed innings eaters.
From this year’s Padres offense, no one expected the sustained explosiveness of the Slam Diego fireworks show. Veterans Hosmer and Myers exceeding their career on-base percentages, for example, wasn’t an outcome anyone predicted for this season. Maybe for 60 games. Not for an old-fashioned season.
The extreme, maddening streakiness of this year’s offense, though, wasn’t expected.
Don’t count the rival Dodgers as surprised by how that played out.
The Dodgers suspected Padres baserunners in 2020 were very good at reading pitch signals from second base and conveying the signs, and Padres hitters were very good at applying that intel.
Such tactics are perfectly legal. Opponents should be able to counter them.
Did similar alertness contribute to the 36-24 record the Padres recorded though 60 games this year? The chess-signs game is one of many variables that churn within the ebb and flow of a baseball season. The Dodgers did wonder if they’d been hacked — legally — in June when the Padres swept a three-game series to improve to 7-3 against them. The 5.25 ERA the Dodgers posted in that series wasn’t ghastly, but the Dodgers vowed to keep Padres runners off second base in subsequent games. If a runner got there, they would alter tactics.
The Padres’ offense became streakier as the summer wore on. Pitchers on several teams muffled them. The Dodgers all but took away Padres bats from hitters. Over the next seven games after the June 21-23 sweep, the Dodgers posted a 1.03 ERA. Within that stretch, the Padres failed to score in 43 of 46 innings. They lost all seven games (then two more, including Wednesday’s slugfest in L.A., to end the season series).
A tense game Aug. 25 between the teams surfaced extraordinary Dodgers suspicion. Or was it mix of paranoia and gamesmanship when manager Dave Roberts had his relief pitcher balk Padres baserunner Victor Caratini from second base to third base.
Roberts in effect was shouting to the Padres: You won’t steal this pitch signal!
Tatis, batting at the time, responded by thumping a game-tying home run.
The Padres nevertheless lost the game, which went 16 innings. Manager Jayce Tingler goofed a pivotal chess move in extra innings, in effect allowing Dodgers pitchers to use Padres pitchers as an escape hatch. All managers have made similar mistakes. They admit them and learn from them. But, Tingler, lately, has taken more daggers from anonymously quoted Padres personnel than Julius Caesar took from Roman conspirators.
In 2020, the 60-game season afforded Tingler a spin on training wheels as a rookie manager. A universal DH spared him the complications of traditional National League baseball, soon likely to be legislated out of MLB. The truncated menu, shorn of 102 games, excluded teams from the Central and East divisions. It was Baseball Lite.
More important than Tingler’s performance was and is that of the man who hired him — Preller — and the men who hired Preller in August 2014 — ownership point men Peter Seidler and Ron Fowler, who supported then-CEO Mike Dee’s preference for Preller.
If Slam Diego thrilled San Diego like few other Padres teams, the comedown has reaffirmed how brutally long the marathon season is. Given the absence of any traditional playoff berths since 2007 or winning seasons under the current braintrust, it’s not a reminder Padres fans needed.