Nats backing up spring promise of aggressive baserunning

It's one thing to say you're going to be aggressive on the bases. Every team says that every spring. It's another thing to actually back that up once the season begins, which the Nationals most definitely have done so far.

Entering tonight's game against the Braves, the Nationals have successfully stolen six bases, most in the National League and second-most in the majors (behind only the Astros' nine). They've also successfully taken a bunch of extra bases in other fashions, whether going first-to-third on a base hit to the outfield, going second-to-home on a ground ball to the infield or scoring from third on a fly ball that might typically be deemed too shallow to take a shot.

The end result: They rank among baseball's (very early) season leaders in baserunning, having added .5 baserunning runs above average through five games, according to's calculation.

Harper-Running-Blue-Sidebar.jpgThat may not sound like much, but consider that the 2015 Nationals finished the season with a -2.1 baserunning metric, ninth-worst in the majors.

Given that track record, it wasn't hard for new manager Dusty Baker and first base coach Davey Lopes to sell their players on the idea of upping the aggressive factor on the bases this year.

"Not this team, it wasn't," Lopes said. "I heard about what they were like last year, the year before. It's something I didn't really want to hear. But different styles for different people. They wanted to speed up the game. We want to go first-to-third. We want to go second-to-home. We want to advance on balls in the dirt. We want to advance on an outfielder's mistake."

The Nationals have done all of that through the season's first week. And it's not just the usual suspects. Bryce Harper is 3-for-3 on stolen base attempts. Ryan Zimmerman has taken five extra bases via balls in the dirt, popups in foul territory and errant throws.

Baker wholeheartedly endorses what his players have done, even if there's risk involved.

"Hey, you can't be afraid of making mistakes," he said. "If you're afraid of making mistakes, you'll never force mistakes."

Both Baker and Lopes (who over the course of five decades in the sport has established himself as one of the premier baserunners and baserunning coaches in history) recognize this approach will sometimes produce outs. The Nationals have run into five outs so far (two caught stealings, three of other varieties), but they're willing to live with that in exchange for the extra bases they're piling up along the way.

"There's going to be some times when they make outs, but I want them to be aggressive outs," Lopes said. "If we have to pull back the reins, which I don't anticipate, we'll do that. But when you have speed as a team collectively, to me, you can put pressure on the defense. And the only way you can do that is by hustling. Which sounds like ... isn't that what we always do? Not necessarily. A lot of teams hold back."

A prime example occurred Sunday afternoon against the Marlins, when Harper was thrown out trying to advance to third base on a pitch that rolled away from catcher J.T. Realmuto but was quickly retrieved.

"Make an out, you didn't necessarily make a mistake," Baker said. "Sometimes they just made a great play. Sometimes they made a great throw."

Harper, in particular, is embracing this approach. He stole only six bases last year during his MVP season, only two in 2014. He's currently on pace to steal 97 this season.

Obviously, Harper isn't going to maintain anything close to that pace. But he might just approach 30 steals, not to mention countless other extra bases taken via an aggressive approach, adding an entirely new element to his already gifted skillset.

"He's a different talent," Lopes said. "Some of the good ones who over time want to become the great ones, they're always looking for something to add to their game. And he's got that mentality. He's got that makeup. Even if he has a great game, it won't be enough. He'll always think he should have done something better. And that's good to have. The great ones have that."

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