The Washington Nationals have scored 4.19 runs per game, which ranks them fourth in the National League and above the NL average of 3.97 runs a game. They’ve done this with a below average slugging of .382 and while hitting the seventh fewest home runs in the NL. The perception still exists that the Nationals are a team perpetually waiting for the three-run homer and with hand injuries to Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth’s power diminishing with age, Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche being extremely streaky hitters, and Ryan Zimmerman on the disabled list for the second time this season, that power may never arrive. With this downturn in power the logical conclusion for some is that the Nats need to manufacture runs, but giving away outs isn’t the wisest course of action. The Nationals have avoided that with the fewest non-pitcher sac bunts in the majors.
When a team is without power, there is often a call for them to play small ball, and the Nationals haven’t done that, but they’ve still managed to score an above average number of runs and have one of the best offenses in the National League. The answer to this is simple: the Nationals are the best base running team in baseball. BSR is a recent stat introduced by Fangraphs that measures how a team runs the bases and the Nationals are currently leading baseball with an 8.0 BSR.
If you’re not into advanced stats there are more traditional stats that tell you how good the Nationals have been on the bases. While they’ve only stolen 64 bases, which is eighth in the NL, they’ve done so at a success rate of 86 percent. So when the Nationals are taking a risk to steal a base they more often than not are successful and successful at a rate that makes the stolen base a great asset. The Nats have made 38 outs on the bases, which is right around league average, but they’ve been an aggressive base running team, having taken the extra base (first to third on a single, first to home on a double) 45 percent of the time, which is second in the NL.
The Nats excellent base running starts at the top of the lineup with Denard Span. Span has turned his season around at the plate and has an on-base percentage of .352 for the season, allowing his baserunning to be a real asset. Span has reached base 165 times and scored 70 runs meaning that he scores a run 42.4 percentage of the time he reaches base. Span is so adept at scoring runs, because he isn’t just a fast baserunner, but a smart one as well. He has a 92 percent success rate in stolen bases even though his 23 stolen bases seem low for a leadoff hitter with his speed, but more stolen bases with a lower success rate isn’t always valuable. When it comes to taking the extra bases, Span does so 58 percent of the time.
While Anthony Rendon doesn’t have the speed of Span, he is an intelligent ballplayer and this translates to running the bases. Rendon has stolen 11 bases with his wily baserunning and has only been caught once. That is a 91.7 percent success rate. So combined, the top two hitters in the Nationals order have stolen 34 bases and been caught just three times. When it comes to taking the extra base, Rendon is just as good as Span doing it at the same rate of 58 percent. All of this has led to Rendon, who has reached base 163 times and scored 79 runs, scoring a run 48.4 percent of the time he reaches base. Get Rendon on twice in one game and the Nationals are almost guaranteed a run.
Span and Rendon have been dynamic on the bases at the top of the order, but they aren’t the only good baserunners on the team. Werth will steal a base or take an extra base if the other team naps on him, and while Desmond doesn’t get on base often, he has stolen 12 bases in 15 attempts and has taken the extra base 48 percent of the time. Even LaRoche, who is rated by BSR as the worst baserunner on the team, has a stolen base and 100 percent success rate.
The 2014 Washington Nationals are not a power hitting club, nor are they a team that manufactures runs and plays small ball. They are instead a team that runs the bases extremely well with a dynamic top of the order that scores a run nearly half of the time they reach base, and all of this has made them one of the best offensive clubs in the National League.
David Huzzard blogs about the Nationals at Citizens of Natstown. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHuzzard. His views appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our pages. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our regular roster of writers.