Nationals Baserunners Are Throwing Caution To The Wind

While the Nationals are at the top of baseball in terms of stolen bases, they are not exactly the most disciplined baserunning team. Should more thought be put into the risk/reward of their aggressive running style?
Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies / Rich Schultz/GettyImages

In the 1980s, the Montreal Expos consistently ranked near the top of all MLB teams in stolen bases. That made sense, because Tim Raines stole almost 600 bases in the decade, as he led a lightning-fast team in an era that valued speed as much as anything else. The Expos led the league in 1981, thanks to Raines' 71 steals in 88 games as a rookie. They were constantly stealing 150 bases or more each season, as were many other teams, numbers that were unheard of throughout the 2000s and 2010s.

In the early 1990s, Marquis Grissom and Delino DeShields joined the Expos franchise and pushed the speed game even farther. The Expos were top-4 in MLB for five straight years, leading the league three times in '90, '91, and '93 in steals, and playing decent baseball otherwise. It was a different game, and an exciting one, and 30+ years later baseball as a whole is feeling like stealing again. Pitchers, now, are restricted to just two pickoff attempts plus a third do-or-die throw over. Runners have an advantage they didn't have before, and while it's small, it has made all the difference.

A lot has happened to the Nationals and to Major League Baseball since 1993, the last time the franchise led the league in steals. The team that now resides in Washington might still have some thieves' DNA from a past era, because it looks like the team might once again outrun the league. As of June 3, the Nationals have stolen 94 bases, six ahead of the Reds and more than double the league average. They have done so efficiently as well, with an 81% success rate, above the league average of 78%.

Clearly, this team is fast and knows it. CJ Abrams and Jacob Young are bonafide base criminals, and when they're on and running, the offense benefits. The offense, however, has struggled despite their efficiency on the bases. The team ranks near the bottom of the league in scoring, raising the question of whether an all-speed strategy is worth it. On one hand, Davey Martinez and the coaching staff can only strategize with the players on hand; if Juan Soto and Bryce Harper were in the lineup, the team would certainly hit better and for more power, but right now the personnel has speed and not much else. On the other hand, the failures of several key players to perform at the plate might deserve more attention than the intricate baserunning strategy.

Stolen bases can only do so much. There is a reason that, with analytics influencing strategy more and more, the stolen base frenzy of the '80s and '90s saw a rapid decline. The way the Nationals have run so often has worked, and they should maximize their chances as long as they can maintain their efficiency, but from a teambuilding perspective it's clearly outmatched by other areas of performance. If one team has better base stealers and one team has better home run hitters, the advantage goes to the sluggers.

Even The Slow Players Are Running Like Crazy

We know the Nationals are fast, and they run a lot. It's quite fun when it works, especially the two steals of home the team has, more than a dozen steals of third base while only being caught once, and countless defensive errors and mistakes caused by the pressure. Looking into it, though, the team has accomplished this in a surprising way. It's not just CJ Abrams and Jacob Young, nor is it young speedsters finding their way onto the field, though that did happen for Trey Lipscomb and his 10 steals. It's not just Trey, though, everybody is running!

Lane Thomas' 15 steals in 29 games has almost matched his 20 steals last year, a career high he set in 157 games. That makes sense because of Thomas' elite raw speed, and he has become a great baserunner so far this year. What's weird is the rest of the list of steals: Jesse Winker has 10 (career high was 1), Eddie Rosario has 8 (career high of 11), and Ildemaro Vargas has 5 (career high was 3). Each of those players has below average speed. Keibert Ruiz, Riley Adams, and Joey Meneses have chipped in a few bags too, somehow. Seriously, everybody is running.

All the steal attempts from relatively slow players is risky, for sure. It's a brave strategy, even. Is it perhaps desperate? Are these the workings of a tactical mastermind, or of someone out of better ideas? Either way, its a minor advantage with the major benefit of making games more exciting. Each time Jacob Young manages to reach base, the real games begin. Once a catcher makes one errant throw, the question lingers over his head every time someone is on first base, even if that someone is Joey Meneses.

The statistic mentioned earlier, the 81% success rate for Nationals base stealers, is somewhat deceptive, I think. The Nats have been caught stealing 22 times, but 10 of those were of the "picked off and caught stealing variety", plus 4 clean pickoffs of Nats runners. The 14 times the team has been picked off leads MLB by a lot, as the league average is less than 5. Aggressive but slow runners, like Winker and Vargas, risk being nabbed by pickoff moves, and that can partially be blamed on reckless signals from Davey Martinez and coaches. What's interesting, though, is that catchers have only thrown Nats runners out 12 times. Pitchers have been better at nabbing base stealers than catchers have, and if the team can figure out how to avoid getting picked off so much, they can be even more aggressive.

It's fair to expect this trend to continue, considering Lane Thomas returning to his everyday role, Winker and Rosario showing a surprising willingness to steal bases, and the fact that James Wood figures to join the club and add even more speed. Whether Elly De La Cruz and the Cincinnati Reds catch up on the league leaderboard is a tough question, but the Nats will certainly blaze past last season's total of 127 stolen bases, and set a new Nationals record. Theoretically, the team has a shot at the Expos' totals of the past, and they can definitely push towards 200 steals. They've just got to keep running.