In 2015, the Nationals stole only 57 bases to rank 14th in the National League (ahead of only the league champion Mets). While the success of the Mets may minimize the importance of stolen bases to some extend, one watching the Nationals play station to station baseball in 2015 could easily have come to the conclusion that a few key steals here and there might have helped the team create additional scoring opportunities.
This season the Nats could have four players (Ben Revere, Michael A. Taylor, Trea Turner, Danny Espinosa) with elite speed in their lineup, with several others (Anthony Rendon, Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy) also capable of swiping bases at times. Since the team’s inception in 2005, the Nationals have finished in the top half of National League teams in steals only four times in 11 seasons. Will this year’s squad make it five of 12?
New Nationals’ manager Dusty Baker is believed to be a proponent of increased usage of the stolen base, but his past teams’ records show that he has not always had the horses to put together a proficient running game. In his 20 years as a manager, Baker’s teams have stolen 100 or more bases only eight times (seven times with the Giants and once with the Cubs). Baker’s teams have also had lower than acceptable stolen base percentages (69% in 10 years with San Francisco, 69 % in four years with the Cubs and 68% in six seasons in Cincinnati).
The most effective Nationals’ squad in terms of stolen bases was the 2014 NL East champion team that stole 101 bases (Denard Span led the way with 31 steals, with Ian Desmond chipping in with 24) with a sterling 81% efficiency rating. In terms of outright steals, the 2006 team (led by Alfonso Soriano’s 41) had the most steals with 123 but had only a 66% success rate. The three other times Nats’ teams have had over 100 steals were in 2010 (110, 73% success rate), 2011 (106/74%) and 2012 (105/75%).
It will be interesting to see how the Nats use the steal in 2016. If Revere is able to stay healthy and get on base at his usual clip, it is easy to see him easily eclipsing Soriano’s team high total. And if Turner wins the shortstop job and is able to stay above water offensively, he could give the Nationals one of the top one-two punches in the league in terms of stolen base effectiveness.
There are differences of opinion as to the value of the steal. For a team like the Nats that has struggled to move runners at times, the tactic might give Washington’s offense a boost. While we shouldn’t expect the 2016 Nats to resemble the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, one can assume that there will be more speed on display in Washington this season than there has been in the past.