For Nats, Stealing Is a Calculated Move
Tuesday, March 24, 2009; Page E04
JUPITER, Fla., March 23 -- Standing on first base, no outs in the top of the first inning on Sunday, Lastings Milledge reminded himself of the math, only the math. A four-step lead. A sharp jump. He could make it to second base in 3.2 seconds. If those variables aligned, he could steal the base nine times out of 10-- a rate that would please his numbers-conscious manager and fractionally boost his team's odds of scoring.
Unlike in 2008, when he stole with a 72.7-percent success rate, Milledge vowed now to run only when it made sense, not merely when it looked good. All spring, he had worked to reduce his decision-making to a calculus, which is why he didn't worry that Houston catcher Iván Rodríguez had won 13 Gold Gloves, or that, for his career, he's thrown out 42.6 percent of all would-be base stealers. That was all mythology, and Milledge, in this moment, thought of only two numbers: Houston pitcher Brian Moehler, according to one coach's stopwatch, took 1.45 seconds to throw home. Rodríguez generally took 1.88 seconds to throw to second. Total, then, the baseball needed 3.33 seconds to travel from Moehler's hand to the second base bag.
Milledge thought he could beat it.
Since Manny Acta became manager in 2007, the Nationals have stolen bases neither frequently nor well. During that two-year span, the Nationals ranked 22nd in baseball in stolen bases and 23rd in percentage, with a 68.9 percent success rate. Acta isn't guarded about stealing bases; he's simply unwilling to deal with the consequences of failing too often. In 2007 and 2008, Washington didn't steal many bases because, first, it was often trailing, and second, it didn't have the right players.
"If you give me José Reyes, Hanley Ramírez, Lou Brock, Ty Cobb, I'll run you off the field," Acta said. "If you don't have them, you just can't run. You can't just run so people like you and 35,000 in the seats think that you're aggressive while you're hurting the team and getting people thrown out on the bases. I'll run when I think I have a chance to have success and when I need to run."
For Acta, a 70 percent success rate marks the line between helpful and damaging. If you can swipe second seven times in 10, you get an eternal greenlight on Acta's team. When Milledge -- the team's newly appointed leadoff man -- reached first against Moehler on Sunday, he had the green light. His decision-making would dictate the fate of Washington's inning. According to data gathered in 2008, teams with a runner on first and nobody out average 0.900 runs that frame. Make it to second with no outs, and that number jumps only to 1.150. Try for second and get caught, though, and you have none on and one out -- and the number crashes to 0.279. In other words: A failure would cost Milledge more than success would help.
Few Washington players other than Milledge figure to threaten many catchers this year. Milledge led the team last year with 24 steals; nobody else topped 13. That's why spring instructor Cesar Cedeño, with 550 career stolen bases, has paid particular attention to the 23-year-old center fielder. Cedeño has encouraged Milledge to take 4- or 4 1/2 -step leads, a one-step increase from what he managed last year. He has reminded Milledge to stay low, crouched like a rocket. He has demonstrated to Milledge how to keep his right foot open, half-pointed toward second base.
"He will be a success if he becomes a real student of this particular fact -- how to steal bases, because he's definitely got a God-given ability," Cedeño said. "And he's willing to do it. He likes to run."
Said Willie Harris: "Lasto is going to steal at least 30 bases this year. At least."
Cedeño, on Sunday, encouraged Milledge to run even before the game began. During warmups, he noticed Moehler's slow delivery; he showed Milledge the stopwatch that proved it. "You can run on this guy," he said.
Milledge agreed, and he liked the idea of stealing early in the game, with No. 2 hitter Cristian Guzmán -- a singles-hitting specialist -- still at the plate. Asked about a stolen base goal for the season, Milledge said "40," but added, "I don't want to just steal bases to steal them. If we're up 6-2 and I steal third, that doesn't make any sense. To be able to steal that bag when the team needs it, that's the goal. Not steal 30 times and get thrown out 17 times. That's more the goal, to have a good percentage, whether I steal 20 and have an 80 percent success rate. That's better than having 30 stolen bases and getting thrown out however many times."
Milledge took his aggressive lead and tried to get a feel for things. The first pitch from Moehler, he didn't get a good jump and held back. Deeper in Guzmán's at-bat, when he finally broke for second, he still didn't get the perfect jump. But it didn't matter. He slid in just ahead of the throw, his second stolen base of the spring.
"If [Rodríguez] had made a better throw he probably would have gotten me," Milledge said, "but it was a breaking ball down in the zone a little bit."
Though the Nationals didn't score that inning, Milledge, recalling the sequence a day later, knew that he had played the odds right. Only once, while talking, did he slip away from the numbers. He broke into a wide smile, thinking about the reputation of the catcher, and said, "I got Pudge!"