Teams seem to be wary of stealing vs. Nats

Scherzer and Co. practice holding ball for extended time, quick release

Teams seem to be wary of stealing vs. Nats

CHICAGO -- Nationals right-hander Joe Ross issued a leadoff walk to Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera in the bottom of the first inning of Tuesday night's game at Citizens Bank Park. Then, Herrera attempted to steal second base. It was unusual, not because he was thrown out, but because he even went at all.

"That's when I realized there hadn't been many attempts off of us," Ramos said. "We've had some fast runners get on base, but for whatever reason, they haven't been going."

Opposing teams have only made 24 stolen-base attempts against the Nationals this season, the second fewest in the Majors (just ahead of the Cardinals -- 23). Teams have swiped 16 of those 24 bases successfully (although the Nats have often allowed runners to take third base when they employ an extreme shift against a left-handed batter).

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So why aren't teams running on the Nationals?

St. Louis, of course, has Yadier Molina behind the plate, who has one of the strongest arms in baseball, which explains why teams are normally hesitant to test him. Ramos is a competent catcher with an above-average arm (81.0 mph, compared to the league average of 78.7 mph), but his exchange (0.78 seconds) and pop time (two seconds) numbers are slightly slower than the league average (0.74 and 1.98, respectively).

However, Nats pitchers are among the quickest in terms of pitcher release time. Their 1.29 seconds to the plate is tied for third in the Majors and better than the league average of 1.30. Washington also stands right at league average in plate time (0.43 seconds). Remember that in terms of stolen bases, every fraction of a second can make a huge difference in whether a runner is successful.

Statcast™ has 12 starting pitchers (minimum 10 starts) with only one stolen-base attempt of second base against them. Two of the 12 are Nationals -- Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez -- tied with the Astros and Cards for the most of any team (Ross was also on the list before the Herrera stolen-base attempt on Tuesday). And each member of Washington's rotation ranks among the quickest pitchers in the Majors to the plate. The league average is 0.43 seconds, which is where right-hander Tanner Roark sits. Scherzer, Ross and Stephen Strasburg all get the ball to the plate in 0.41 seconds, while Gonzalez does so in 0.42 seconds.

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"When a guy's that quick, they're going to shut it down," said Nats bench coach Chris Speier, who helps the team's pitchers control opposing baserunners. "They might hit and run, but most clubs won't take the chance."

Combine those quick plate times with the fact that Nationals pitchers have started holding the ball on the mound in a set position for extended amounts of time, often until a batter or umpire calls time. This strategy has been mastered by Scherzer and replicated by the rest of the staff in order to throw a baserunners' timing off.

Washington began emphasizing this to its pitching staff during Spring Training, and according to Ross, it was deemed especially important with so many early meetings with the Marlins, against whom the Nats matched up with 13 times before the end of May. At that time, Miami still had the speedy Dee Gordon at the top of its lineup, before he was suspended for performance-enhancing drugs.

"Us having to do that against Dee early in those first few weeks was good for our staff," Ross said. "Since we did that early, we kind of carried that into the season so far. Hopefully we can stay on top of it, because I think it's been working pretty well so far."

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.