Nationals Season Preview: Baserunning
Big changes are coming to MLB in 2023. You're probably aware of the pitch clock rules, but it is the other major rule change that already has players calling 2023 the 'year of the stolen base'. Starting this year, pitchers are only allowed to step off of the rubber twice per plate appearance. If they step off a third time and don't get a runner out, runners will automatically advance a base. The increased pressure on pitchers from the pitch clock is already a difficult adjustment for them, which makes these baserunning changes even more impactful.
Early on in Spring Training, David Adler of MLB.com noted that stolen bases were much more frequent and more successful than the past. It seems certain that this trend will continue into the regular season and steals will surge upwards. It remains to be seen just how high steals will be league-wide, but any increase should be welcomed as steals have been slowly disappearing in recent years.
For a young team like the Nationals, this is great news. Overall, the team projects to be a little light on homers and heavy on young contact hitters. Manager Davey Martinez likes his teams to cause trouble on the basepaths and that's exactly what the plan will be in 2023. The Nationals have the opportunity to grab a much-needed advantage over their competition by stealing aggressively and efficiently. They seem unlikely to have advantages in any other facet of play, but if their young squad can run circles on pitchers struggling to keep up with the new rules, they can be a threatening opponent for contending teams.
In Grapefruit League play, the Nationals swiped 25 bags and were caught stealing 10 times. That is just over a 70% success rate, which isn't great, but is mostly held down by both Dominic Smith and Keibert Ruiz being caught twice with zero successes, for some reason. Remove those two slowpokes and the rest of the team was over 80%, led by middle infielders CJ Abrams and Jeter Downs with 4 steals apiece. Those steals numbers are huge compared to last season when the Nats only averaged 0.46 steals per game as a team.
For the Nationals to have an effective strategy on the bases, a lot is riding on the success of CJ Abrams. Abrams will be 22 this year and has elite raw speed. He stole bases at an impressive rate in his short minor league career and stole 7 bases between the Padres and Nationals last year. He is a work in progress at the plate, to say the least, but can absolutely fly. It's easy to envision Abrams being dangerous on the basepaths in 2023 and throughout his 20s. For him to stand out in that area the hard part isn't even the actual base stealing. Abrams needs to improve his on-base percentage so that he can spend more time on his feet and stay healthy and durable to see his steals totals soar. He hasn't proved that he can do those two things just yet, but he's still young and has looked solid this spring. The sky is the limit for Abrams.
Along with Abrams, the Nationals outfield will provide plenty of speed so long as Joey Meneses isn't on the grass. Victor Robles had a decent 2022 on the bases with 15 steals, but his work at the plate with a .273 OBP didn't do him any favors. He hopes to return to 2019 when he set a career-high with 28 steals, as well as a career-high in just about everything. Robles is only 26, if he sees playing time he will certainly be running. Lane Thomas, Alex Call, and potential call-up Stone Garrett have each produced multiple double-digit steal seasons in the minors, but none have surpassed 20 in a year.
Statcast's Sprint Speed metric displays great speed from the aforementioned players in 2022, with Lane Thomas standing out in the 95th percentile and Abrams not far behind in the 91st. Robles, Garrett, and likely infield call-up Jeter Downs are each above the 80th percentile with Alex Call just below. During the season it's likely that four or five of those players could be playing at once, in addition to infielders Luis Garcia and Ildemaro Vargas who aren't quite as fast but have a penchant for aggressive baserunning. With that speed, the Nationals could earn a reputation as a pesky team on the bases.
Keibert Ruiz and the Nationals catchers are also worth keeping an eye on as they work with the pitching staff to prevent the new rules hurting them on the defensive side. Ruiz does not have a standout arm or pop time by Statcast's metrics but can still improve, as he's one of MLB's youngest starting backstops. Ruiz did throw out 20 runners last season which was tied for third in all of baseball, but only had a 28% caught stealing rate.
The new rules will lead to more excitement, which is a great thing for the Nationals who have been lacking sources of entertainment lately. I am a believer in CJ Abrams' speed and could see him pushing 30 or 40 steals. Remember that Trea Turner didn't break into the majors until he was 23 and then put up 40+ steals in his 2nd and 3rd seasons. CJ Abrams has a long way to go to really fill Turner's shoes, of course, but the team is putting a lot of faith in the 22-year-old and his athleticism.
Overall, I predict the Nationals to vastly improve on their 2022 season when they were 20th in MLB in stolen bases, and made many mistakes on the basepaths in general. The new rules completely change the strategy between the pitcher and the runner and pitchers will need an adjustment period early in the season when steals should be high. The Nationals have a real chance to finish top-10 in MLB in steals which would be a great sign for the organization. If CJ Abrams and friends can notch 100 steals or more, it could be a reason to tune in even when the team is struggling.