The Nationals' speedy shortstop is intent on reviving the fading art of the stolen base. Washington's offense stands to benefit—and if the sport gets a jolt, all the better

AS A CATCHER, J.T. Realmuto's job is straightforward. The Marlins' third-year backstop talks to his pitchers about game plans for opposing hitters. He receives pitches and does his best to frame them as strikes. And when hitters get on, he tries to keep them from stealing. That last task isn't one he worries about too much. After all, the stolen base isn't a strategy that most teams use with any regularity—last year there were all of 3,538 attempts across the majors, the fewest in a full season since 1973. Realmuto faced 79 attempted steals in 129 games in 2016.

But while the days of Rickey Henderson and Tim Raines running wild are long gone, there are still a few fleet-footed thieves who can give catchers fits. Realmuto's teammate, second baseman Dee Gordon, led the majors in steals in 2014 (64) and '15 (58). Reds outfielder Billy Hamilton, one of the fastest men in the game, has swiped 56 or more bags in each of his last three seasons.

And then there's Realmuto's newest adversary in the National League East: 23-year-old Washington shortstop Trea Turner, who, like Gordon and Hamilton, is wiry thin and blazingly fast. After a 27-game cup of coffee in 2015, Turner came up for good last July and ripped off 33 steals in just 73 games—a full-season pace of 73, which would have blown away Brewers shortstop Jonathan Villar's major-league-best 62—while earning a second-place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Now atop arguably the most imposing lineup in baseball and with a license to run, Turner is making catchers once again fear the steal. "When there's a guy on the opposing team who has that type of speed, you're a little more anxious, a little more antsy when they're on base," Realmuto says.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker isn't shy about his strategy when it comes to baserunning. "I'd love to steal every time up," he told reporters on Opening Day. "But you need the right guys."

In Turner, he has just that. According to MLB.com's Statcast data, Turner ranks eighth among righthanded hitters in terms of getting from home to second base; his best 2016 time was 7.6 seconds. That's almost two seconds faster than the major league average of 9.34. And his best time from home to third was 11.14 seconds, as compared with the league average of 12.74.

"Sometimes it seems like he's faster than the ball," says Nationals catcher Matt Wieters, who faced Turner in 2016 when he was behind the plate for the Orioles. (Turner went 2 for 4 in steals against him in a four-game series.)

"He's an impact player," says Washington first base and baserunning coach Davey Lopes, 72, who had 557 steals over his 16-year career. "Anybody with the speed that he has—a Rickey Henderson, a Vince Coleman, a Willie Wilson—they change the complexion of the game."

It's been 35 years since Henderson set the single-season record for steals (130) and 30 since Coleman stole 109 bases, the last time a player broke the century mark. No one has come close since: Eric Davis is the only other player to have more than 80 steals (1986), and Jacoby Ellsbury is the last to get 70 (2009). There are many reasons for the decline of the stolen base. Foremost is the sabermetric revolution, which emphasizes the value of not making outs. While a steal theoretically increases the likelihood of a run being scored, a caught stealing does greater damage to the offensive team's efforts. For a stolen base to be worth the risk, the runner has to have at least a 66% chance of success, an Age of Analytics rule of thumb that has dramatically changed baserunning strategy (chart, above).

From 1975 to '86, 374 players stole 25 or more bases in a season, with 42 of them successful less than 66% of the time. From 2006 to '16 there were 262 players with 25 or more steals—but only three of them were caught more than a third of the time. Teams were getting more restrictive about when they sent their players. The number of steal attempts hit an all-time high of 5,114 in 1987 but fell by 26.4% between 1999 and 2005, when there were just 3,634.

It's easy to see the stolen base as an antiquated weapon—a craft that only a handful of players have mastered. But Turner knows there's still value in the stolen base.

"It's kind of a lost art," he says, "until it decides a game."

TREA TURNER knew he was faster than everyone when he arrived at N.C. State in the summer of 2011. As a freshman, he tied an ACC record for most stolen bases in a game with five against Clemson. "He was running all over the field like the Road Runner," says Wolfpack coach Elliott Avent, who remembers Turner once swiping a bag on a pitchout. Another time, with dozens of scouts in attendance, Avant and his staff clocked Turner at 6.25 seconds in a 60-yard dash; an average runner is usually in the 6.7 to 6.9 range. "It's speed you just don't see ever," says assistant coach Chris Hart.

Lightly recruited out of Park Vista Community High in Lake Worth, Fla., Turner stole 113 bases in 173 games over three seasons at N.C. State—while getting caught just 14 times, an 88% success rate. That helped make him the No. 13 pick of the 2014 draft by the Padres, who shipped him to the Nationals six months later as part of a three-team trade that sent former AL Rookie of the Year Wil Myers to San Diego and top outfield prospect Steven Souza to Tampa Bay.

On the field, Turner is havoc personified. Off the field, he's reserved—he was a chemical engineering major at N.C. State, and he counts investing in the stock market as one of his hobbies. He's also a far cry from the brawny sluggers who are once again grabbing headlines around the sport. Listed at 6'1" and just 185 pounds, with a boyish face featuring sparsely growing facial hair, he looks like a kid who won a contest to hang out in a major league clubhouse for a day. "He's only 15," Baker jokes.

That slim frame, though, belies another factor that makes the Henderson comp more compelling: Turner's surprising power. Last year he slugged a Bryce Harper--esque .567 in 324 plate appearances, with 13 home runs. This season, despite a slow start and a hamstring injury that shelved him for two weeks in April, he's slugging .449 and hit for the cycle against the Rockies on April 25. "I never wanted to be a slap hitter. It would hurt my pride if someone called me one," Turner says. "I wanted to be a guy who could do everything."

But while that power makes Turner a complete hitter, it's his speed that makes him special. It's what led the Nationals to give Turner, who is 6 for 6 in steals this season, carte blanche to run, something he's on board with. "They have a lot of confidence in me," he says.

"If he gets on base and he wants to run, there's no telling how many he'll steal," Lopes says. "Sixty won't be anything."

With Turner leading the way, perhaps the stolen base can make a comeback and give the sport a jolt of energy. "Guys like Trea, they're fun to watch," Lopes says. "Baseball can make you nod off a little bit. These guys have the ability to wake you up."

THE RULE OF TWO-THIRDS

Of the 395 players who have stolen at least 20 bases in a season since 2007, only nine have violated the golden rule of thievery: don't get caught more than a third of the time

[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]

50

40

30

20

10

'07

'08

'09

'10

'11

'12

'13

'14

'15

'16

SLIP SLIDIN'

Steals have sharply declined since their peak 30 years ago, when Vince Coleman became the last player with 100 in a season and there were a record 3,585 across the majors

[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]

110

100

90

80

70

60

50

40

30

20

10

'86

'87

'88

'89

'90

'91

'92

'93

'94

'95

'96

'97

'98

'99

'00

'01

'02

'03

'04

'05

'06

'07

'08

'09

'10

'11

'12

'13

'14

'15

'16

TOTAL

3,312

3,585

3,301

3,116

3,290

3,120

3,264

3,263

2,258*

2,933

3,239

3,308

3,284

3,421

2,924

3,103

2,750

2,573

2,589

2,565

2,767

2,918

2,799

2,970

2,959

3,279

3,229

2,693

2,764

2,505

2,537

1986 VINCE COLEMAN 107

1993 KENNY LOFTON 70

1998 RICKEY HENDERSON 66

2001 ICHIRO SUZUKI 56

2007 JOSE REYES 78

2015 DEE GORDON 58

*strike-shortened season

With his sparsely growing facial hair, Turner looks like a kid who won a contest to hang out in a major league clubhouse for a day. "HE'S ONLY 15," BAKER JOKES.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)