- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 7, 2008

DENVER | If there’s one common theme among the position players the Washington Nationals are building around, it’s speed.

Outfielders Elijah Dukes and Lastings Milledge, acquired last winter, have earned praise for their running ability. Cristian Guzman’s speed has been talked about his whole career, and the Nationals just signed him to a two-year extension. Assistant general manager Mike Rizzo has called new second baseman Emilio Bonifacio one of the fastest players he ever has seen. Shortstop Alberto Gonzalez, who came in a July 31 deal from the New York Yankees, can run, and Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns have good speed for their size.

So what does all that hustle buy you with a manager who rarely orders a steal? Plenty. Just not in the ways it used to.

Washington, like a number of teams around baseball, is re-evaluating the best way to use its speed and finding that doesn’t always correlate to stolen bases.

National League teams are stealing .58 bases a game this season, which is the second-highest total in the last six seasons. But that rate has fallen more than a third from 1988, when NL averaged .92 steals. As recently as 1999, the mark was at .76 steals.

But like most other parts of baseball, data changed everything.

State-of-the-art video equipment allowed opposing teams to spot patterns in when a baserunner will make his jump. A pitcher, who can upset a runner’s timing by delaying his delivery, became as important a defense mechanism as a strong-armed catcher. And the statistical revolution spurred by the advent of sabermetrics produced believers like Acta, whose running philosophy is derived from data that suggests there’s no correlation between stolen bases and winning.

“It’s an art that’s kind of disappearing, because there’s a lot of ways to stop it,” Acta said. “People have realized you don’t want to be taking chances and giving outs away when you have good hitters at the plate.”

But that doesn’t mean speed is dead. If anything, it’s just used in a more calculated fashion.

Teams look at caught-stealing statistics as closely as stolen bases, realizing every runner thrown out on the basepaths has hurt his team by taking away a scoring chance and adding an out.

Acta rarely orders a steal, instead giving green lights to the players who have proved they can handle them and letting them run when they’ve picked up a hint in a pitcher’s delivery.

The importance of running responsibly came through Sunday, when Bonifacio was gunned down against the Reds.

“Guys need to learn when to pick the spot. You just don’t run to run,” Acta said. “If a guy, like [last Sunday], [Reds pitcher Johnny] Cueto was really quick to the plate, there are times when you just need to shut it down.”

He puts more emphasis on going from first to third on a single as he does on stealing, preferring to take an extra base in a situation where the defense doesn’t have as much control over the play.

Even daring teams like Colorado and Philadelphia aren’t doing it haphazardly.

The Rockies, who rank second in the NL with 99 steals, have been thrown out only 24 times. They’re more aggressive because of leadoff hitter Willy Taveras (50-for-55) and crafty baserunners like Matt Holliday (15-for-16).

Manager Clint Hurdle made a conscious attempt to turn the Rockies loose this year, but it wasn’t blind aggression.

“We’re trying to pick our spots and do a little more incrementally in the running game, whether it be a delayed steal or a double steal,” Hurdle said. “It’s one of the places we thought we could improve. We don’t want to run into outs, and I think overall, we’ve done a very good job of picking our spots.”

The transformation of the Phillies from a conservative running team to one of baseball’s most aggressive has much to do with Davey Lopes, the former Nationals first-base coach and baserunning instructor who came to Philadelphia in 2006.

The Phillies have swiped 89 bases this year, fifth-most in the NL, and placed second in the league last year with 138 steals. Their average of .83 steals over the past two seasons has increased from the .64 steals they recorded the first two years of Charlie Manuel’s tenure.

“Once we got Davey, I feel like we’ve gotten way more aggressive,” said Manuel, the Phillies manager. “We’ve kind of turned the running game loose to him. We probably take more chances than anybody in our league. If we make mistakes and it helps us manufacture more runs than the mistakes we make, I figure it’s worth it.”

That’s where the top of Philadelphia’s order sets the team apart. It’s stocked with fleet players who know when a gamble is worth taking. The Phillies last season were caught stealing 19 times - or on 12 percent of their attempts. That number has risen slightly this year, to 16 percent of their attempts, but it’s still one of the league’s best, thanks to players like Jimmy Rollins (27-for-28) and Shane Victorino (26-for-34).

Manuel still is reluctant to run with Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell at the plate because an unsuccessful steal could come before a home run. But he knows even if a stolen base threat is held at first, it could mean the pitcher throws an extra fastball to Howard in hopes of reaching the plate quicker.

So the chief by-product of speed - disruption - is the same as it always has been. It’s just that teams are smarter about how they use it.

“It doesn’t matter how fast Bonifacio was [Sunday],” Acta said. “Cueto was able to stop him just by going 1.1 [seconds] to home plate with a good catcher. But also, when you have the type of speed that he does, and you get whoever’s on the mound rushing to home plate, they have a good chance of hanging a breaking ball. So that’s what speed does for you.”

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