Stolen bases part of the reason Nats are off and running

In their first five years in Washington, the Nationals have been anything from cautious to cavalier in their attitude toward the running game. But the effect, under that spectrum of approaches, has remained minimal.

Only once in five years have the Nationals ranked among the National League’s top five teams in stolen bases. That came in 2006, when Alfonso Soriano reached the 40/40 mark and the Nationals were fourth in the NL with 123 steals. But they were thrown out 62 times, the most in the league.

Under Manny Acta, the philosophy was to protect outs at all costs. And with a lineup predominantly stocked by general manager Jim Bowden’s bulky sluggers, the Nationals rarely ran.

That’s changed so far this year, though. The Nationals’ roster is smaller and sleeker, Bowden’s toolsy outfielders replaced by the quicker, defensively sound players prized by current GM Mike Rizzo. And with manager Jim Riggleman, the stolen base is quietly becoming a weapon again for the Nationals.

Washington has only played 12 games, but currently leads the NL with 14 steals. And what’s more, the Nationals have been thrown out just four on the basepaths.

I’ve spent the last few days talking to coaches, front-office types and players about the Nationals’ running game, and came up with this primer on what makes it go:

The Philosophy: Riggleman and his aides say the manager doesn’t have a set belief on how much a team should run; it’s dictated more by the talent he has on hand. But there’s been a shift in the attitude toward stolen bases in the game over the last 10-15 years, and from Rizzo to Riggleman to the coaching staff, the Nationals have a group of decision-makers who fall decidedly on the pre-“Moneyball” end of things. “Riggleman’s an aggressive guy,” first-base coach Dan Radison. “It comes from the top down. I would say Riggleman’s attitude is, ‘If it makes sense, we’re going to take a base.’” Also, as testing for performance-enhancing drugs has stepped up, the game has shifted back toward defense, and speed is a byproduct of that. “I want to be aggressive. I want to put runners in scoring position. I want to put pressure on the defense,” Rizzo said. “Of course, you have to be intelligent about it. You don’t run yourself out of innings when you have your Zimmermans, your Dunns, your Willinghams up at the plate. But manufacturing runs is a big part of the game, especially in the National League, especially in the era we’re in right now.”

The Personnel: When asked about his attitude toward stealing bases, Acta always pointed to roster. “Give me Jose Reyes and Carlos Beltran and I’ll run you out of the league,” he would say. If Riggleman does things the same way, the increase in steals is partially because of what he’s got to work with. Nyjer Morgan swiped 42 bases last year, and has four steals already from the leadoff spot this year. Reserve outfielder Willy Taveras also stole 25 bases for Cincinnati last year, and led the league with 68 steals two years ago in Colorado. Adam Kennedy had 20 steals in 2009, and Willie Harris had 11. Ian Desmond’s also likely to steal 20 bases this season. Before the season. the Nationals identified the need to build a defense that can cover more ground, and now they’ve got the weapons to run. “It all went into our plan to get better defensively,” Rizzo said, “and I think it helps offensively, too.”

Before the Game: Video coordinator Erick Dalton puts together film of each pitcher for the hitters to dissect each night, and as part of that package, he includes video information on what a pitcher’s doing with runners on base - little cues he might give in his delivery that he’s thinking about throwing to first or stepping toward home plate. Hitting coach Rick Eckstein and first-base coach Radison - who’s responsible for helping Eckstein with hitters and timing pitchers’ deliveries to home plate - review the information with the Nationals’ lineup, and the Nationals drill baserunning each day in warm-ups.

“That’s why they go out there every day, go to second base in day one of spring training and try to read the ball off the bat,” said Tim Foli, who is a special assistant to Rizzo and serves as a quality control coach before games. “Whether you’re on first or you’re sitting in the dugout or you’re watching the game on TV, you should be able to pick up something from the pitcher. Does he have a rhythm? Does he go on certain counts? What does he do when gets behind in the count - does he have a bigger leg kick? What does he do when he’s ahead in the count - does he throw more breaking balls? All that stuff is part of the game. The whole idea is to be a student of the game.”

Said outfielder Josh Willingham: “The coaches watch a lot of the film, what the guy does when he’s picking. They’ll kind of let you know, and you do your own work, as well. But they’ll let you know what a guy’s doing, and you go from there.”

During the Game: Radison, like all first-base coaches, has a stopwatch with him to time a pitcher’s delivery to home plate. Conventional wisdom says a pitcher who takes longer than 1.3 seconds to deliver the ball to home plate is susceptible to stolen bases. But that’s only a rule of thumb; baserunners like Morgan, Harris and Desmond are able to steal in tighter situations, where Willingham and Ivan Rodriguez (who both have stolen bases this year) are more selective. “I like the fact that those guys are open, that if a guy’s slow to the plate, they’re willing to take advantage of it,” Radison said.

Sometimes, there’s a signal from the dugout on whether to hit-and-run or stay put. But mostly, Radison will make his recommendations during a game based on video work, information he’s gotten from other coaches. “We’ve got a lot of experience on this staff,” Radison said. “A lot of these guys know (these other pitchers). When you add up all this experience on this staff, it adds up to pretty good stuff.”

The Effect: The Nationals lead the NL in stolen bases, and on four occasions, they’ve had runners who stole second score on a hit later in the inning. Three of those times, the runner has scored on a single, including an insurance run in the Nationals’ come-from-behind win against the Phillies last Thursday and a score in the three-run rally to beat the Brewers on Friday. And then there’s the aspect of the game that’s much harder to measure: how batters are pitched when someone like Morgan is on first base, creating a baserunning threat and possibly dictating more fastballs from the pitcher. “How are we going to put a stat on that?” Foli said. “The idea is, you’re trying to gain an advantage.”

Said Riggleman: “Opportunities are arising, and players are taking advantage of them.”