The most recent era of successful Orioles teams became well-known for how little they stole bases, culminating with a high of 19 for the entire 2016 season. This was an intentional strategy that Dan Duquette and Buck Showalter built into roster construction. Power was prioritized over foot speed, and to be fair it worked for them. The Orioles had the single-season home run leader four straight years from 2013 through 2016, and the team led all of MLB in home run three times in that same span.
The current day Orioles are an entirely different beast. They won’t be able to compete with baseball’s slugging juggernauts, and instead will have to squeeze every ounce of run production out a lineup with plenty of question marks. One way they could do that would be with agility and speed on the basepaths. That doesn’t mean that this is the fastest Orioles team ever, but it is unlike any squad the club has had in more than a decade.
A season ago, the O’s had seven players that displayed an average sprint speed above the MLB average of 27 feet per second. Of that group, five will return in 2021: Cedric Mullins (28.7), Ryan Mountcastle (28.0), Austin Hays (27.9), Pat Valaika (27.3) and Ramon Urias (27.2).
Plus, there is a reasonable chance that we will see Richie Martin (29.5 in 2019) or Stevie Wilkerson (28.3 in 2019) back on the field at some point after their absences last summer. Martin’s pace put him in the 97th percentile of all runners in 2019. If he can stay healthy and do enough with the bat to be a contributor, his feet could be quite valuable.
And let’s not forget the return of Trey Mancini (26.7 in 2019). He isn’t fast, but he has been close to average, which would be a boost if he replaces at-bats from Chris Davis (23.9) at first base or Dwight Smith Jr. (25.6) in left field.
The new hitters provide a mixed bag and unsure projections.
Yolmer Sanchez posted a mediocre speed of 26.6 last year, but that tallied up only nine total sprints. He was much quicker in 2019 (27.7) over 215 sprints. At the very least he should bring a similar element to what his predecessor at second base, Hanser Alberto (26.8), provided during his tenure and perhaps a bit more.
It is much more clear cut at shortstop. Freddy Galvis is a slow poke. The 31-year-old rated in the 28th percentile in speed last year, averaging 25.9 feet per second, which is consistent with how he was trending in his career. That will be a drop off from Jose Iglesias (27.1), who bested Galvis even while battling leg injuries throughout the year.
How Jahmai Jones even factors into this Orioles team remains a mystery. The decision-makers are said to view him as a second baseman first, outfielder second. That could mean he ends up in Triple-A for the year. But when he does make it to Baltimore he is expected to run well. Jones doesn’t have enough big league experience to even have a sprint speed calculated at Baseball Savant. However, he has been viewed as an above-average runner as a prospect, and that would seem unlikely to change in his age-23 season.
Now, let’s be realistic here. It’s not as if all of the Orioles’ fastest players can co-exist in the same lineup. Mullins and Hays are likely to share responsibilities in center field. There is only room on the big league roster for two of Valaika, Wilkerson, Urias, Jones, and Martin. Plus, players tend to slow as they age, as is expected to be the case with Mountcastle.
That said, there is a lot to like about the speed options on this Orioles team. They lack that one proven base stealer, like Jonathan Villar in recent seasons or Brian Roberts during the dark ages. Instead, Brandon Hyde has a plethora of options that will, at the very least, keep opposing defenses honest.
Speed allows teams to experiment, whether that is with hit and runs or with bunt base hits, like Mullins did a season ago. It is an x-factor that can be counted on even when the player possessing the speed might be otherwise slumping. This team could stand to experiment more.
As mentioned at the top, if these Orioles hope to be competitive, they will need to make the most of their offensive chances. That doesn’t mean they need to swipe 150 bags. But it does mean they will need to go first-to-third on singles and score from second on sharp base hits. Improved team speed should allow them to do so.