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Orioles have the chance to be a much faster team this season

For the past several years, the Orioles have been known for their power on offense but not their speed. That could change this season.

Chicago White Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Orioles had 81 steals as a a team last year, placing them 7th out of 15 American League teams and 12th out of all 30 MLB clubs. Better than I assumed. But take away Jonathan Villar’s 21 steals (in 54 games) and O’s would only have 60.

Other prominent contributors to that stolen base total last year were Jace Peterson with 13, Craig Gentry with 12, Manny Machado with eight, Adam Jones with seven and Joey Rickard with four. There were also five players with two steals apiece and six players with one.

Even with that surprisingly high stolen base total last year, the Orioles have not been known as a fast team for some time. They have more frequently been known as free swingers who strike out a lot and put the ball over the fence too.

For four straight years — from 2014-2017 — the Orioles ranked last in the American League in stolen bases with 44, 44, 19 and 32.

A big part of reversing that trend has been Jonathan Villar, who came to the O’s in a midseason trade last year and immediately provided a spark at the top of the lineup and on the basepaths. He had an 87% stolen base success rate (21 out of 24) after 54 games in Baltimore. If he could maintain that consistency for an entire season he may approach 50 steals.

Cedric Mullins only got two steals last year, but he also only played in 45 major league games. Still learning on the job and adjusting to major league pitchers, Mullins would be well-served to soak up as much knowledge from Villar as possible.

But hey, it’s not like Mullins was some base-clogger in the minors either. In 377 games across four different levels in the O’s system, he has tallied 77 steals. Now he just needs that to translate to the big leagues. At this point he seems to have the inside track for the center field job.

Villar is most likely ticketed for the top of the lineup when the regular season begins, and if Mullins could just stick up there with him, that pair has the ability to wreck games with the headaches they could cause pitchers on the basepaths.

If Villar plays second base, that leaves shortstop up for grabs. Two intriguing players for that position are Rule 5 picks Richie Martin and Drew Jackson. In 118 games at the Double-A level with the Oakland Athletics last year, Martin had 25 steals in 35 attempts. He has 59 steals over the course of four minor league seasons.

Jackson, on the other hand, stole 22 bags in 103 games at the Double-A level in the Los Angeles Dodgers system last year. Over four minor league seasons, he has 106 stolen bases total.

Veteran outfielder Eric Young Jr. was just added to the roster recently and over his 10-year career with five different clubs, speed has been his most consistent tool. Young Jr.’s career high in steals was 46 in 2013, even though he only hit .249 that year with a .310 on-base percentage. His career batting line is .245/.312/.332.

Don’t forget youngster DJ Stewart either, who swiped a pair of bags over the course of 17 games with the O’s at the tail end of last season. Stewart may not look like a stolen base threat at first glance — he is a stocky outfielder, checking in at 230 pounds — but he is surprisingly adept on the basepaths. He stole 20 bags in 2017 with Bowie and 26 in 2016 with Frederick and Delmarva.

Of the aforementioned six players, it’s safe to say only one of them is guaranteed a major league roster spot at this point, and that’s Villar. The rest of the guys are left to earn jobs during spring training position battles. But with so many open spots on the roster, at least a few of them figure to head north with the team at the end of March. And each one has the ability to add a new dimension to a team sorely lacking in the speed department until recently.

But how much does GM Mike Elias and his analytics department value the stolen base? That remains to be seen. He has players at his disposal with the potential to steal bags, but will he encourage his field staff to utilize this tool aggressively or conservatively?

The newer school of thought in baseball devalues steals, deeming them too much of a risk, with the potential cost being an out while also taking the bat out of your hitter’s hands.

The first stat people jump to when referring to speed is stolen bases — myself included obviously. But speed manifests on the diamond in other ways too. In the field on defense is of course another big way. But speed and base-running smarts can also show up in more subtle ways, like when a runner goes from first to third, legs out an infield hit, breaks up a double play or tags up on a fly ball.

Base-running miscues have reared their ugly head too often the past couple years with former manager Buck Showalter’s Orioles. There are a couple players who come to mind immediately as examples who happen to no longer be with the team. But in 2019, new manager Brandon Hyde has the chance to instill more discipline when it comes to all around smart base-running, which is important because valuable runs can get left out on the field otherwise.