The 2023 rules have changed the speed game; the Nats are now taking advantage!

When MLB implemented larger bases and put restrictions on pickoff plays that began with the 2023 season, the stolen base attempts increased by 40.7 percent. The success rate of stolen bases also increased by 8.7 percent. General manager Mike Rizzo and manager Dave Martinez were clear at the Hot Stove event last month that the Washington Nationals were going to be taking advantage more of the speed game, and we saw it in the Rule-5 draft taking speedster Nasim Nunez as well as with the promotion at the end of August with Jacob Young.

Commissioner Rob Manfred immediately injected more combined scoring into the games with a 7.7 percent increase from 2022 to 2023 as runs scored went from 20,817 to 22,425. The stolen bases increasing from 0.51 per team per game in 2022 to 0.72 in ’23, a more than 40 percent increase, and the highest average per team game since 1997. Never in the more than 100 years of available data have teams averaged 0.72 steals per game, and as much as last year’s 82 percent SB success rate. Expect more steals in 2024.

This also drew an obvious line of demarcation in the dirt that unless you were at 75 percent or higher, you should not be stealing unless the pitcher time to the plate and/or catcher POP times dictated that a player like Alex Call should be stealing. Call had a success rate of only 52.9 percent. That is a poor number — yet he attempted 17 stolen bases. Young, on the other hand, was a perfect 13-for-13. CJ Abrams swiped 47 bags and was only caught four times. Some baserunners needed to stop running like Call, and Abrams should have been stealing more earlier in the season when he only attempted stealing seven stolen bases through June 24. Lane Thomas was 20-for-25 and just under that 82 percent success rate.

With Abrams, Young, Nunez, and Thomas as four speed burners, the Nats have a chance to drive opposing defenses crazy. The other side of the equation is that the Nats are trying to add more power to the lineup. The power game through a high SLG translating into a high OPS is the most coveted offensive tool. But a baserunner like Young turns singles into two bases like a double, yet SLG and OPS give him no credit for that.

Young got on-base 37 times and 35 percent of the time stole the extra base in his small sample size in 2023. If we took 13 of Young’s 20 singles, and calculated them as doubles for those stolen bases, his SLG would have been .514 instead of .336, and a hefty .836 OPS. His value of wreaking havoc on the bases, and flashing elite leather in center field makes him a player to keep an eye on. Some have compared him to a young Trea Turner, and keep in mind that Young went to the University of Florida out of high school as a middle infielder.

We could do the same with Abrams numbers which will make him even more valuable. In fairness, we would reduce his OBP for the five caught stealings, and his OPS would increase from .712 to .782. Faster runners also score more often from second base on singles, and the traditional statistics just do not capture the truest value of these speedsters enough — but Rizzo and Martinez seem to be grasping this with help from their analytics people.

“The proof is in the pudding. You’ve seen snippets of it. Last year, you saw a skinny little shortstop that hits 18, 19, 20 homes runs. And all of a sudden has a capacity to steal 50, 60, 70 bases, and play shortstop every day.”

— Rizzo on Abrams at the Hot Stove event

What Rizzo is referring to is that Abrams went en fuego in the final 88-games of the season batting .265 with a .325 OBP, .442 SLG, and a .766 OPS. He also was 41-of-43 in stolen bases. Let’s do the Adjusted OPS exercise again, we would reduce his OBP for the two caught stealings, and his OPS would increase from .766 to .881. That is spectacular if Abrams can replicate his final half season of 2023, or better, for 2024. Abrams accomplished this all as a 22 year old putting him in his some rare company.

For players who stole at least 47 bases with at least 18 home runs in baseball history through their age-22 seasons, Abrams joins Corbin Carroll, Mike Trout, and Cesar Cedeno as the only four players to have ever done that in a single season — and Abrams is the ONLY infielder. That is rare air up there. And while Nunez and Young don’t have that type of power, the Nats have Thomas and two players in the minors that have the speed and power profiles in Dylan Crews and James Wood. Baseball America just ranked Crews with Power: 65 | Run: 55 tools on the 80/20 scale. Crews had the third best average exit velo on contact off his bat in all of the minor leagues. As he adds launch angle and more backspin, his power numbers will get better. Wood has identical power/speed ratings as Crews.

The future looks bright.

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