For at least two years, attempting a stolen base on the Nationals was often a foregone conclusion. Even though it has been a point of emphasis in past spring trainings, the Nationals have finally not only corrected a past weakness but made it a strength. After ranking second to last in 2012 and last in 2013, the Nationals have thrown out 45 percent of baserunners (22 of 27 attempts) this season, better than every team except the St. Louis Cardinals.
On Saturday, catcher Wilson Ramos threw out a would-be Cubs basestealer by 10 feet, a scene that has become more common now with the Nationals. Ramos has a strong throwing arm but was often forced to make a perfect throw with little time in the past. This season, he is showing off his cannon right arm. Of catchers who have started at least 30 games, Ramos is second in the majors with a 53 caught stealing percentage (9 of 17).
“The pitchers have taken care of the runners,” Ramos said. “Their moves home have been faster and that’s helped us a lot. In years past, we’ve made good throws but not in time. We’re making the same good throws but now have time. They’ve helped us in how they are careful about the runners. That’s helped us a ton.”
So what changed between this year and past seasons when the issue was also stressed?
“Sooner or later they were going to improve,” Ramos said. “A runner at first is so much different from a runner in scoring position. They’ve realized that more and are better about it.”
The biggest reason for the change has been the improvement of Nationals pitchers. Some pitchers have improved their delivery times to the plate, but more than anything, they have simply become more conscious of baserunners. Instead of falling into a pattern of catching the ball and throwing, they have held the ball longer than normal or even used a slide step when pitching. In the past, they would throw over to first base only when signaled from the bench. Now, they have even done it on their own.
The pitchers “have really taken ownership of holding runners and taken pride in it,” said bench coach Randy Knorr, who coaches the catchers. “They’ve changed their looks, changed their times to the plate. They hold on, they step off, they focus on it.”
Among the pitchers that have improved the most, Ramos and Knorr pointed to Stephen Strasburg, Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen and Jordan Zimmerman. Three of six baserunners have stolen a base with Zimmermann on the mound so far this season; last year they were successful 14 of 19 times. Storen has allowed few baserunners during his dominant season but, even then, he has yet to allow a stolen base; last year he allowed four in five attempts. Roark has been the best of the bunch: baserunners have been caught five of eight times when he is pitching.
“It all starts with the pitchers,” Manager Matt Williams said. “It all starts with their times to home plate to give them a chance to throw somebody out. And they’ve worked hard on it.”