Denard Span learning when, and how, to steal bases

(Greg Fiume / Getty Images)
(Greg Fiume / Getty Images)

This afternoon at Great American Ball Park, more than four hours before first pitch, Denard Span danced off second base on a mostly empty diamond. Nationals first base coach Tony Tarasco stood a few feet away, inspecting his movements, sometimes taking an imaginary lead off second base and darting for third himself.

The work of turning Span from a fast runner into a base stealer remains ongoing. Span, the Nationals’ new leadoff hitter, arrived from the Minnesota Twins with the goal of stealing more bases. The 29-year-old was caught Wednesday night in his first attempt of the season, one sign of how many nuances he still has to learn about swiping bags.

“I can tell you in the short time I’ve been here that this is the most I’ve ever spent hands-on on becoming a better base stealer,” Span said. “In Minnesota, we talked about it a lot. Just so far, it’s still only the second series of the season, but we’ve done a lot.”

Span has had to absorb lessons on every part of base-stealing: how to watch a pitcher and time his movements, which counts most likely will produce the best pitches on which to steal, the situations that make a stolen base most necessary, and how his going or not going may affect the hitter at the plate.

Friday, he worked on the best footwork for taking a lead and getting a good jump, and where to train his eyes when he’s on second base.

“Being efficient in his jumps and his reads,” Tarasco said. “Getting the most out of his speed. He’s doing a really good job. He’s working steadily and diligently. He’s done a really good job of trying to grow slowly, not trying to grow too fast.”

Despite his speed, Span has never stolen more than 26 bases. His next best season, he swiped 23 – but was caught 23 times. With the Nationals, Span wants to be smart and selective in how he steals more than aggressive. Tarasco and third base coach Trent Jewett have used signals to notify him of good situations to run. Tarasco has told him, “Let the base come to you. Don’t go out and get the base.”

“I don’t want to go just to be going,” Span said. “I want to be going at ideal times. It’s not about me stealing 60, 70 bases. That would be nice. If I can steal 25 to 35, and it helps our ballclub and those stolen bases are meaningful and it’s a good percentage, that would be fine with me.”

Manager Davey Johnson has long extolled an offense that relies on on-base percentage and power. Still, he does not want to limit Span or any of the other speedy Nationals. Jayson Werth, for example, has stolen bases at an 86.7-percent success rate in his career, fourth-best among active players.

“I’ve got three or four guys who have the green light,” Johnson said. “It’s really a learning experience right now. I’m not pushing [Span] to steal. We’re going to use every weapon we have, and we have a lot of guys that have speed. I won’t put the rope on them.”

Johnson paused to admonish one recent attempt. Thursday afternoon, Bryce Harper tried to steal third base with one out and cleanup hitter Ryan Zimmerman at the plate. He was thrown out before Zimmerman drew a walk.

“Harper, I wanted to kill him the other day, down there and at second trying to steal third, the middle of the lineup up,” Johnson said. “That was not a very smart play.”

Why, Johnson was asked, would Harper even try such a play?

“Because that’s Harper,” Johnson said. “He thinks he can always make it. But he’s got to be smarter.”

As for Span, he also must consider the batter up at the plate. When he’s on first, Werth, the Nationals’ No. 2 hitter, is most likely to be in the batter’s box.

“There’s a dynamic there we got to feel our way around,” Werth said. “It won’t be a big issue at all. In ‘08 in Philly, I hit second behind Jimmy Rollins. He’s a similar guy – likes to run, likes to steal bases. But I’m a different player now than I was then, I would say. Batting second doesn’t really mean a whole lot on this team. I wouldn’t say I’m your prototypical second hitter. So there’s not going to be a whole lot of hitting and running and hitting behind runners. You still got to play the game, but I’m going to be myself. As far as that goes, I don’t think there’s going to be a big learning curve.”

Span said he and Werth have only had a few small conversations about how to approach stealing when Werth is at the plate. Span made clear he would defer, prioritizing Werth’s at-bat over his chance to steal.

“I’m not going to tell him to take too many pitches for me,” Span said. “It’s not like I’ve stolen 50 or 60 bases. If I feel like I can get it, I’m going to try to go. I would preferably look to go early in the count so he’s not put in a hole at the plate.”

Werth was up Wednesday night when Span took off, thinking he had a read on right-hander Kevin Slowey. But Miguel Olivo threw him out. There was, at least , something to be learned for next time.

“Yeah,” Tarasco said, before pausing. “I can’t tell those secrets.”

Adam Kilgore covers the Nationals for The Washington Post.
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Adam Kilgore · April 5, 2013