Washington is eighth in Majors with 67 steals, with help of veteran coach
By Alex Putterman
WASHINGTON -- In the third inning of the Nationals' win on July 16 over the Pirates, Danny Espinosa timed Pittsburgh righty Gerrit Cole's delivery and took off for third base, sliding in ahead of the tag for his sixth stolen base of the year.
The extra base didn't end up mattering to the score of the game -- the next two batters struck out to end the inning -- but it carried symbolic relevance nonetheless: It was the Nats' 57th steal of the season, tying their output for 2015.
Last year's Nationals were a mostly sedentary team. Their 57 stolen bases ranked 27th, and their team leader, Michael Taylor, had only 16 steals. According to Fangraphs' formula for baserunning value, Washington was 22nd best at creating runs on the bases.
But in the offseason, the Nats replaced Matt Williams with Dusty Baker, and they hired Davey Lopes to coach first base. For any team looking to jump-start its running game, there may not be a better hire than Lopes. The former Dodger stole 557 bases during a 16-year playing career in the 1970s and '80s, and he has spent most of the past quarter century as a Major League coach, bringing his baserunning expertise to five franchises, including the Nationals in 2006.
At least one Nats player immediately knew what Lopes' hiring meant. Jayson Werth played under Lopes for four seasons in Philadelphia, and he has repeatedly called him one of the best coaches he's been around. He'd spent his first five years in Washington talking up Lopes to whoever would listen.
When the Nationals convened for Spring Training, they didn't announce that the team planned to crank up its aggressiveness on the bases, but they didn't have to.
"I don't think you have Davey Lopes as your first-base coach and have that not be your philosophy," Werth said.
Since the first inning of the 2016 season, when Anthony Rendon took off to steal second, this year has been much different from '15. Despite few changes to the roster, these Nationals have already swiped 67 bags -- at a respectable 72 percent rate -- eighth most in baseball. Only 99 games into the season, 11 Washington players have successfully stolen a base, compared to nine all last year.
Up and down the roster, players are running more often than before. Bryce Harper is up from six steals a season ago to a team-high 15 this year. Rendon went from one steal in 2015 to nine already in '16. Espinosa has improved from seven to nine. Taylor has nearly matched his total from last year in half the at-bats. And after not swiping a single base last season, Werth has taken four so far this year.
There's not much disagreement about the source of the Nats' newfound aggression. The players universally point to Lopes and his ability to read pitchers' tendencies on the mound.
"I definitely credit a lot of what's going on to Davey," Harper said Friday, hours before swiping his 15th base. "Some of it is due to technique, but also knowing what the pitcher is going to do, how he's going to do it and what pitch to go on, things like that."
"The biggest thing is he has a great eye," Taylor added. "He picks up on things most people don't see, he's aggressive, and he loves to run."
Speed is obviously a key component to basestealing, but equally important is a runner's ability to read pitchers and time their delivery. That's where Lopes comes in. By all accounts, he's a master at picking up pitchers' idiosyncraies -- a head drop or a shoulder twitch, or maybe a tendency to hold the ball for the same amount of time each pitch -- and using that information to help his runners. Lopes talks to players before every game, sharing nuggets of wisdom about that night's starting pitcher.
Ben Revere said sometimes a pitcher will slide step to hold him on first, and he'll figure he has little chance of swiping a base. Then Revere will look back at Lopes, who'll tell him to count to two and take off. Sure enough, the pitcher will begin his delivery just as Revere breaks, and he'll end up standing on second.
Baker is perhaps best qualified to assess Lopes' aptitude for the running game. Baker played with Lopes from 1977-81 -- during which time Lopes stole 179 bases and was caught only 29 times -- and recently said he was "the best baserunner and best basestealer that I've ever played with."
"Davey reads pitchers better than anybody," Baker said. "Davey knows when they breathe if they're going home or they're going to first."
But to Lopes, basestealing is only one component of running the bases well. He tells his players to be prepared at all times to advance on a ball in the dirt or take an extra base on a bobble in the outfield. Lopes calls going first-to-third and second-to-home the Nationals' biggest forte, and advanced stats support his claim. Per Fangraphs, the Nats are the seventh-best baserunning team.
"You have to be aggressive," Lopes said last week. "You have to put yourself in position to take advantage of a mistake when the opportunity presents. And to do that you have to be hustling."
Of course, aggressive baserunning comes with risks, and the Nationals have made several high-profile gaffes lately. On July 16 against the Pirates, the same day the team recorded its 57th steal, Harper was thrown out by 15 feet trying to go from first to third on a single to left field. The next day, in the 17th inning of a marathon game against Pittsburgh, rookie Trea Turner attempted to stretch a routine single into a double and was easily tagged out at second.
But Lopes won't concede that these outs are a negative side affect of his baserunning style. In fact, he posits that Turner's problem wasn't being too aggressive but rather not being aggressive enough. Lopes suggests that if the rookie had run hard out of the batter's box, he could have beaten the throw to second.
When it comes to aggressive baserunning, Lopes said, "There's no downside, as far as I'm concerned."
"If we're getting thrown out trying to steal third base with two outs or first and third base with one out and stuff like that, then you can probably say, 'Back off, shut it down, we're giving away too many outs,'" Lopes said. "But we haven't done that, haven't even come close to that."
Clearly the good has outweighed the bad for Nationals runners this season. Amid brilliant starting pitching and breakout performances from Daniel Murphy and Wilson Ramos, improved baserunning has been an under-the-radar contributor to Washington's 58-41 record. And that wouldn't be possible without the fearlessness Lopes has instilled in the players.
"If you get thrown out, you get thrown out, and that's part of the game," Harper said. "[Lopes] gets more mad when you don't run than when you get thrown out."
Thus, Lopes' philosophy can be best distilled to a simple message: Just keep running.
Alex Putterman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.