In the third inning of a recent Grapefruit League game against the Atlanta Braves, the Washington Nationals’ Bryce Harper came to bat with Denard Span at first base and one out. With Harper facing left-hander Ryan Butcher, Span took off and stole second. After Harper drew a walk, the Nationals pulled off a double steal that allowed Tyler Moore to drive in a run with a sacrifice fly to center field.
It was a small sequence in a spring training game four weeks before Opening Day, but to new Nationals Manager Matt Williams, the moment represented a lot. Williams’s philosophies are beginning to seep into the Nationals’ playing style, and chief among them is aggression on the base paths. That goes beyond simply stealing bases. Williams wants the Nationals to be aggressive when they take an extra base on an off-line throw from the outfield, to force opponents to hurry defensively and to get into scoring position with a steal.
“We want to apply pressure,” Williams said.
In the past, the Nationals didn’t stress the aggressiveness Williams is preaching. Before he was hired in Washington, Williams was a third base coach with the Arizona Diamondbacks and has joked about leading the majors in getting runners thrown out at home. Players have embraced the philosophy.
“We definitely have the athletes to do what he wants us to do,” Span said. “I think if we can maximize our abilities, it’s only going to make things better and only going to put pressure on the other teams. And I’m all for it. We have a pretty athletic team. Everybody for the most part moves pretty good. There are only a couple guys that are station to station guys for the most part. I’d say five out of our nine guys can actually run.”
The Nationals stole 193 bases from 2012 to 2013, tied for 16th in baseball with the New York Mets. Last season, the Nationals stole 88 bases with a 76 percent success rate, tied for seventh in the majors. Ian Desmond led the team last year with 21 steals, Span nabbed 20 and Harper stole 11. Former Nationals manager Davey Johnson didn’t like stealing bases because “I don’t like to give up outs.”
Quantifying other events on the base paths can be difficult, but some statistics have tried, and the Nationals don’t rank highly. According to the Ultimate Base Running statistic on FanGraphs.com, which assigns values for base running events beyond stolen bases, the Nationals were 0.9 runs worse than average (19th place) last season and 17.7 worse than average (last place) in 2012.
To Williams, taking extra bases on hits or fielding miscues is more important than stealing bases “because that’s how you create multiple-run innings and that’s how you get ahead,” he said.
“The second 90 feet is really important,” he added. “How many times can we go first to third is important. But how many times can that batter take advantage of a throw that’s offline and get to second on that play. That’s most important to me because that base hit scores you two as opposed to one. Or that groundball to the right side leaves that runner at third and you have that chance to score two. That’s what’s really important. Back-side baserunning is important to me.”
Through the first six games this spring, the Nationals have stolen eight bases. Williams has applauded Desmond for stealing three so far, Jeff Kobernus for advancing on balls in the dirt and players for breaking for home when there is a rundown between two other bases.
The calls for the steals this spring have come occasionally from the bench, but often the players have decided on their own when to run. Williams has given veteran players permission to pick their spots. Third base coach Bobby Henley said the coaching staff wants the players to use their feel of the game and instincts.
“Steal bases, reads on balls hit to the outfield, reads on balls hit to the infield, we’re freeing them up and not be forced to pick me up all the time as far as running the bases,” he said. “We trust their eyes. They’re great players; they make great decisions. It isn’t always going to work out, but as talented as they are and smart as they are, they make great decisions.”
Players are still adjusting to the new style. Bench coach Randy Knorr said players have occasionally missed signs because they are not accustomed to running this much.
“If you’re an aggressive team, they’re going to look for it because you’re going to do it and it makes them see the signs better because they’re used to it,” he said.
Mistakes are inevitable, but the Nationals see them as the occasional costs of an overall sound philosophy.
“It’s a talent and a tool that [the players] have, and if they don’t utilize every aspect of their game, it’s a waste,” Knorr said.