Under Manager Matt Williams’s aggressive philosophies, the Nationals entered the season wanting to improve two weaknesses in recent seasons: their base running and their ability to throw out opposing base runners. So far this season they have succeeded at both, ranking near the top in stolen base percentage and caught stealing percentage.
The Nationals have thrown out 15 of 34 base stealers this season, a 44 percent rate that is second-best in the majors. Of catchers with 10 stolen base attempts against, the Nationals have the fifth- and sixth-best arms behind the plate this season. Wilson Ramos has thrown out 5 of 12 base runners this season (42 percent) and backup Jose Lobaton has thrown out 7 of 17 (41 percent).
The biggest difference, according to Lobaton, is the Nationals’ pitching staff’s efforts to vary their timing on deliveries. Lobaton wasn’t with the Nationals last season, but this spring training pitching coach Steve McCatty and Williams urged pitchers to give opposing base runners different looks and so far it has worked.
Pitchers aren’t just falling into their old habits on the mound this season. Lobaton said pitchers are holding the ball for four seconds, for example, then throwing to the plate. Or, on the next pitch, holding the ball for two seconds and then throwing to first base. Opposing base runners have been confused.
“They’re holding the runners on base better,” Lobaton said. “They’re waiting and waiting and waiting, taking the foot off, throwing to first. When you have the same pitching routine daily, one, two seconds and throw to home, it all changes.”
Allowing base runners to steal last was an issue last season for several pitchers, including Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Drew Storen. Strasburg, who allowed 13 stolen bases in 18 attempts last season, has allowed only four base runners in six attempts this year. Zimmermann, who allowed 14 stolen bases in 19 attempts last season, has allowed only three stolen bases in five attempts. Storen has yet to allow a stolen base.
“What I’ve seen now isn’t that they’re throwing more fastballs or throwing outside, but we’ve gotten guys out on curveballs and change-ups and I’ve been surprised,” Lobaton said. “But that’s because we have time and that’s what happens when you have time.”
Added Williams: “For the most part, I think they’ve done a great job at it. It’s not necessarily quicker to the plate but varying looks and not giving them the opportunity to run ragged on you.”
On the offensive side, the Nationals have also been successful on the base paths. They have stolen 25 bases in 30 attempts, a success rate of 83 percent, the third best mark in the majors. Twenty teams have stolen more total bases than the Nationals, but only two — the Oakland Athletics and New York Yankees — have been more effective at doing so.
Williams preached aggressive base running in spring — “aggressive to second and sure to third” — a new thought process for the Nationals. Former Manager Davey Johnson wasn’t fond of stealing bases. Last season, the Nationals were tied for seventh in stolen base rate (76 percent) but stole only 88 bases, just under the major league average. In 2012, the Nationals had a 75 percent success rate but stole 105 bases, again just under league average. Williams’s base running beliefs have instilled confidence in players, and coaches Tony Tarasco and Bobby Henley have helped carry out the message with reassuring voices.
“I think [Williams] setting that base running [tone] — all around, we’re going first-to-third, backside running has been a lot better this year — I think that intensity was first started in spring training, Matt making it part of our DNA: Fearless with a sense of keenness,” said Tarasco, who coaches first base. “We’re still smart about what we’re doing. In spring training, he allowed guys to be aggressive. He allowed guys to make mistakes without panicking. Ultimately, a player learns better from mistakes than he does from being spoken to. Ultimately, we made some mistakes in spring, but they were all aggressive. You learn from them, and there were some times where we were aggressive and we didn’t think we were going to make it, and we made it.”
The Nationals haven’t just improved at their base running efficiency. According to the base running statistic (BsR) on FanGraphs.com, which assigns a value to a team’s overall base running, the Nationals have a 0.6 BsR, good for 15th in the majors, or 0.6 runs above average. The Nationals were worth 1.1 BsR, or 1.1 runs better average on the bases, in 2013 and -17.0 BsR in 2012.
Denard Span leads the Nationals with seven stolen bases and hasn’t been caught once. Span has wanted to improve as a base stealer for years, especially since he arrived in Washington, but has finally felt comfortable this season. He trusts himself and Tarasco more than the past, and is learning when to be more effective as he loses speed with age. Having a manager tell him it is okay to push the issue on the bases helps.
“I think when I got here last year and in my past I was afraid to make mistakes,” he said. “In the past, even in Minnesota, if I made a mistake then I was, I guess, chastised and get a long lecture. Here they preach nothing but be aggressive … It took a while for that to register. You get throw out, it’s not the end of the world. I think that’s a big part of it, me just trusting my instincts. I see something, trust it and go. If I get thrown out – I don’t wanna say who cares – but as long as my thought process and my preparation was good and if I get thrown out then I can live with that.”
Behind Span, Danny Espinosa has stolen four bases without being caught. Ian Desmond also has four nabbed bases but in six attempts.
Although Nate McLouth hasn’t produced much at the plate, he has been an effective base runner when he does reach. He has stolen three bases without being caught. When the Nationals added McLouth this offseason, they also admired his base running ability. He ranks seventh all-time, with a minimum of 80 attempts, with an 85 percent stolen base rate. Jayson Werth ranks fourth with an 87 percent success rate, and has stolen three bases without being caught this year. McLouth has shared his knowledge with teammates. The talk in the dugout, Tarasco said, has been more about stealing bases and running than before.
“When they’re watching pitchers, the conversation is going,” he said. “The guys have been smarter this year.”
With the Nationals’ lineup struggling and missing the important bats of Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman, creating runs on the base paths has been a priority. The Nationals were also without their best hitter, Adam LaRoche, for two weeks, and Ramos for a month. But Nationals coaches want to be mindful of the situation before urging players when to run.
“When you have your big bats out of the lineup, you don’t have very many two-run homers,” Williams said. “It’s just a function of it. So we have to try to create an opportunity, whether that’s by stolen base or that’s by the bunt. Taking advantage of what’s on the field and being aware of it is key for us and is key for any team, especially in times that we’ve had. It’s especially important for us to take advantage of that opportunity.”
“We gotta find ways to manufacture runs,” Span added. “We’ve got to find ways to be more aggressive but at smart times. You can run into outs, especially when you’re not swinging good, you don’t want to just give away outs. If it’s smart, it’s a good thing for us to be aggressive.”