WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — If base stealing were a simple science, maybe Trea Turner would run every time he had the chance.
But it’s more complicated than that, even for Turner, one of the fastest players in baseball. First he has to get on base. Then he has to consider the situation, read the pitcher and, more often than not, get some help from the hitter at the plate. That is the formula for a successful steal, and it’s hard to skip any steps.
Still, the Washington Nationals want Turner to attempt more steals in the coming season. A lot more. Manager Dave Martinez had a conversation with the 25-year-old shortstop Tuesday and, when speaking with reporters, threw out a number that was likely more conservative than the one that made Turner say, “Wow, all right.”
“If he attempts 75 to 80, we’ll be in great shape,” Martinez said, and that would make Turner one of the more aggressive base runners in recent memory.
No player in 2018 came close to 75 attempts. Kansas City Royals second baseman Whit Merrifield led the league with 55; Turner was second with 52. Since 2000, only 13 players have attempted 75 steals in a season. The highest was Jose Reyes’s 99 for the New York Mets in 2007. Martinez is asking Turner to attempt the most steals in his career, by a wide margin, believing that it will result in a career-high in stolen bases (again, by a wide margin).
That strategy seems to make sense, but the execution could prove to be difficult.
“I think I always can,” Turner said when asked whether he thought he could have stolen more bases last season. “There’s plenty of opportunities where I just say no or not right now. Not an excuse, but find a way to play a little smarter, play a little slower. So I think, no matter if I steal 30 or 100, I think there’s always room for more, but it’s whether or not it’s the right situation, right time.”
"From year to year, I think that dictates it, too. If you’re behind a lot, it’s hard to steal. If you’re ahead a lot, you’ve got a little bit more opportunities. If you’re ahead by too much, those opportunities go away, too. So each year is different and hopefully you get a chance to help out as much as you can.”
Turner was caught stealing nine times last year, and a few of those came when he overslid and was tagged out after successfully taking the base. MLB Statcast had him in a three-way tie as the league’s fourth-fastest player in 2018 — using feet run per second as the metric — behind only center fielders Byron Buxton, Magneuris Sierra and Roman Quinn. But those players didn’t hit 19 homers, drive in 73 runs, finish with a league-average OPS and play in all 162 of their teams’ games.
That all makes Turner one of the Nationals’ most valuable players, a franchise shortstop still under team control for three more seasons. Speed is his best tool, and maybe his most useful, especially for a team vowing to manufacture more runs. Turner will probably hit second in the order, behind leadoff man Adam Eaton, and any steal could put him in scoring position for Juan Soto, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman or new second baseman Brian Dozier. It may not be Bryce Harper in the middle of the lineup, but there are plenty of players who can knock in a speedy base runner.
The Nationals ranked fifth with 119 stolen bases last season, and were one of only six teams to finish with more than 100. The World Series champion Boston Red Sox stole 125 bases and also scored the most runs in baseball.
“I’ve told him, ‘As a hitter, would you rather a guy be on first base or would you rather a guy be on second base where you can get a base hit and you have a chance to drive in a run?’ ” Martinez said. “For me, I’d rather a guy be on second base. But sometimes we do want to give a hitter a chance to hit, and he understands that. But when he gets on base he makes things happen, he really does.”
So that led to Martinez challenging Turner on Tuesday, starting an early push to have his best base stealer let loose. Martinez also told Turner to go win a Gold Glove award. If these expectations seem high — and they are — it’s because Turner has earned them. He hit .342 in 73 games as a rookie and finished second in National League rookie of the year voting. The next season, 2017, a broken wrist limited him to 98 games and he still stole 46 bases. And last year he was one of two Nationals starters to stay healthy from start to finish, along with Harper, and had an NL-high 740 plate appearances.
For 2019, Baseball Reference is projecting Turner, with 125 fewer plate appearances, will swipe 41 bases in 49 attempts. If Martinez has his way, those estimates will be way off.
“Any time a coach pushes you to do something that you think is a little crazy, I think that’s them believing in you that you can do it,” Turner said. “It’s possible. It’s still a lot, but it’s possible. I think I’m going to have to do a lot of things right, and hopefully get a shot at accomplishing it.”
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