Everybody loves watching their team hit home runs. It’s fun, it gets the fans excited, and it puts immediate runs on the scoreboard. As O’s fans, we’ve gotten plenty of enjoyment out of that over the past several years. Since 2012, the Orioles offense has ranked 2nd, 1st, 1st, 3rd, 1st, 5th, and this season 12th in Major League Baseball in home runs hit. Three recent postseason appearances have come courtesy of the Birdland Power Company.
But this will change going forward as the personnel changes. In fact, we’ve seen the power outage begin last year and accelerate this year. Gone are Nelson Cruz, Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, J.J. Hardy (who provided excellent power from the shortstop position for a few years), and Matt Wieters to name a few. Adam Jones may be entering his last month as an Oriole. Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo are under contract for next season but are not hitting homers at the rate their contracts suggest they should. The power is evaporating.
That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Anybody who has watched the Orioles understands how frustrating it can be when the power threats go collectively cold. I’ve always thought that a great example of this can be found in the 2016 Wild Card Game. What many remember about that game is Zach Britton sitting in the bullpen when Edwin Encarnacion won the game. But the Orioles’ offense managed two runs in eleven innings. In a win or go home situation, they played as they played all year: swing for the fences and wait for the homer. Trumbo hit one in the fourth inning to give the O’s a lead, but another didn’t occur in the following seven frames and the rest is history.
There’s no guarantee that a different approach would have resulted in an Orioles victory on that infamous night in Toronto. There are games when the opposing pitchers are simply on their game. But power hitters slump. Speed never slumps. What if a player such as Jonathan Villar was on that roster? Even if he was slumping at the plate, he could have gotten on base via walk or hit by pitch. From there, he (and all players with exceptional speed) are game-changers. He could have stolen a base, went first-to-third on a single, scored from first on a double, and put pressure on the defense in various other ways. Maybe those things wouldn’t have happened. But I vividly remember watching that game and being frustrated by the Orioles swinging for the fences and racking up twelve strike outs along the way.
Villar won’t help the O’s in 2016, but he’s on the roster now and I hope his game represents a shift if organizational philosophy. He’s already made his presence on the basepaths felt; he has eight steals in nine attempts since joining the O’s earlier this month. This is a player who led the league with 62 stolen bases just two years ago. He brings a serious aspect of speed to the table that other teams have to account for.
Changing the identity of the offense to one that is more speed-oriented makes more sense than keeping the same philosophy of going station to station and waiting for dingers when the players in the lineup don’t hit many said dingers. Is stealing bases an effective way of maximizing runs? The number of stolen base attempts league-wide has ebbed and flowed over the years. As of last month, the number of stolen bases this season is on pace to be the lowest since 1964. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t effective. The consensus among sabermetricians is that run expectancy is maximized when only those players who steal bases at a rate of over 75% try to swipe a bag. Players over that mark running as often as possible increase run expectancy. Villar’s career success rate is 74.5%. His rate the last two years is a shade over 80%. He, and players like him, should attempt to steal all the time.
Villar spoke with MASN’s Steve Melewski recently about stealing bases. Villar recognizes the importance of this aspect of the game. He mentions the energy it brings to the club and how hitters see more fastballs when a stolen base threat is on base. He seems willing to teach his teammates the art of the stolen base and thinks the philosophy toward running in Baltimore can change. It was an encouraging interview.
The changing of personnel in Baltimore will make Villar’s job of turning his teammates into base thieves easier. Cedric Mullins is already with the big league club and has shown to be dangerous on the basepaths in the minors. He swiped 30 bags during his first full season (2016) and had 21 steals this year before getting called up. (Now he just needs to get on the field...) Austin Hays may get significant playing time next season and running could be a part of his game. He’s stolen six bags in 69 games this season. Ryan McKenna has been less aggressive on the bases this season, but he stole 20 and 17 bases the last two seasons. Yusniel Diaz has shown the ability to run as well, totaling 28 steals in three seasons. (To be fair, he isn’t very efficient at it. He’s been caught 34 times.) Looking further down in the system, Jean Carmona has stolen 15 bases in 119 career minor league games and Adam Hall has 21 this season. The Orioles offense will be infused with speed as these players trickle up to the major leagues.
It’s unclear if Buck Showalter would be on board with an organizational shift in philosophy regarding stealing bases, if he returns next season. While he isn’t on record strongly opposing stolen base attempts, the numbers speak for themselves. His Yankees clubs ranked last in the majors in stolen bases during his tenure. His Diamondbacks ranked 19th and his Rangers ranked 26th. And since 2011, the Orioles are last in the majors in steals and 75 behind the 29th ranked team. Showalter’s teams simply haven’t run.
Until this month, that is. Since the July 31 trading deadline, the Orioles are seventh in major league baseball with 19 steals. If the end goal is scoring runs (it is), then August has been a good month. They O’s rank 14th in the MLB in runs scored, by far the highest they’ve ranked in any month this season. Is it because of the steals? That’s impossible to say. But it’s added an offensive element they haven’t had in years and that can’t hurt.
Who knows if Showalter will be back next year and if he’ll change his thinking on running the bases. But we know that the home runs aren’t going to fly out of Camden Yards like they have in the past. It would be crazy not to utilize players’ skill sets in other ways that maximize run expectancy.