Zimmerman did not suddenly go rogue in some strange attempt to test his speed. He was running as part of a hit-and-run, a smart play in a 1-1 count with two out, when infielders must move to react when they see a runner go and leave holes as they do. But Wilmer Difo did not swing. He had missed a sign, an example of the many little base running problems that have plagued the team all season but picked up as younger players received more playing time lately.
Difo can no longer excuse mistakes with inexperience. He is 26 and has played parts of the past four seasons in the majors. But experience has not eliminated his tendency toward mental mistakes, like that one he made Saturday, or his ill-fated stealing attempt with Stephen Strasburg at bat and two outs Tuesday. Because Difo went and was thrown out, Strasburg had to hit to start the next inning, something veterans always do their best to prevent.
“We have to just keep reminding him to look at the signs after every pitch. It’s something he has to learn. We stay on him about it,” Manager Dave Martinez said. “I’ve been on teams where we had to make him his own signs so it makes it easier for him ... he’s a situational guy for me, so he’s got to learn to do different things. And he’s learning. But I love Difo.”
Everyone loves Difo, in large part because of the youthful and relentless energy he brings day in and day out. No one would want to alter that mind-set, and he is certainly not the only National to adopt it, to mixed effect, on the base paths. Martinez has pointed out teaching moments for Trea Turner, Victor Robles and others, too. Robles can be prone to recklessness. Turner, Martinez said, could be more aggressive.
“I really believe there are certain opportunities where he should steal more and he gets tentative,” Martinez said. “I really believe he’s a 60 to 70 stolen base guy. ... We’re trying to get him to take the same leads every time he goes out there so it looks like he’s going all the time."
The more Turner can bait pitchers into worrying about him instead of the hitters behind him, the better pitches those hitters will get. Honing the nuance on the bases would not only allow Nationals to advance in key situations but would diminish a pitcher’s concentration on the batter.
Base running was always one of Martinez’s coaching specialties, one of the many things Joe Maddon asked him to handle when he first brought Martinez to his staff for spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays years ago. When he talked about why his team failed to make the playoffs this season, Martinez mentioned “the little things.” Focus on the bases qualifies.
And while FanGraphs’ base running metric rates the Nationals as tied with the St. Louis Cardinals as the best base running team in the National League, other statistics -- and the eye test -- argue the point. Baseball Prospectus’s base running runs statistic (BRR) rates the Nationals as the worst in the National League, having scored 10 runs fewer than what would be expected based on “the number and quality of the base running opportunities with which the player is presented.” Prospectus’s statistics indicate the Nationals have advanced on fewer balls in the air than one would expect given the situations presented and scored nine fewer runs than they should have based on their chances to advance on groundballs this season. Many of those statistics are improved by Turner’s performance on the bases, as he leads the majors with 41 steals. For the past two seasons, the Nationals ranked in the top three in baseball in terms of runs added on the bases above expectancy.
When looking at the Nationals' 18-24 record in one-run games, some explanation might lie on the bases. Had they won more of those games than they had lost, this Nationals season might look very different. Importantly, Martinez has had a very different roster than Dusty Baker did the last two seasons. He had a teenager learning on the job in left field, Adam Eaton coming off knee surgery in right field, Daniel Murphy hobbled at second base and Anthony Rendon working through a broken toe at third. Only in recent weeks did the Nationals start their speed-heavy overhaul, one that makes them more reliant on Difo, Soto, Robles and others who might be more able to shape those statistics in a positive direction -- as long as they continue to show improved awareness on the bases.
“It’s the little things that matter, and that’s something we’ll address this winter, that’s something we’ll address in spring training,” Martinez said Saturday. “The little things turn out to be big things.”
This team has time to make those little things a work in progress, and seems likely to have a speedier roster in 2019, particularly if Bryce Harper departs and leave an outfield of Soto, Robles, Eaton and Michael A. Taylor behind. Taylor is in the starting lineup Sunday for the first time since Sept. 9. He, too, has been prone to some mistakes on the bases in his career, though he always provides a stolen base threat. As this team moves forward, Martinez seems likely to prioritize a reshaping of the running game, which should be a weapon for this roster, but has not helped them as much as it should have this year.
A previous version of this story said Strasburg pitched on Friday.
WASHINGTON NATIONALS (78-77)
Victor Robles LF
Trea Turner SS
Bryce Harper RF
Anthony Rendon 3B
Mark Reynolds 1B
Adrian Sanchez 2B
Spencer Kieboom C
Erick Fedde P
Michael A. Taylor CF
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