Major League Baseball wants players to run more, and just about every rule implemented this winter should incentivize them to do so: bigger bases, fewer pickoff attempts, and a pitch clock. It’s a speedster’s dream and should make it far easier to swipe bases. Data from this spring bears that out. Teams are attempting .40 more stolen bases per game, and their success rate has jumped from 73% to 81%.
It should be a welcome change for this Orioles team, which features the American League’s top two base stealers from a season ago and a reason to believe that the supporting cast could be more of a threat on the bases than last summer. They may even be able to improve upon the 95 bases they stole as a team last year, the club’s most in a season since Brian Roberts (50 steals) and Corey Patterson (37) led them to 144 total swipes in 2007.
Everything begins and ends in this department with Cedric Mullins. He stole a career-best 34 bases last year, and is poised to do something similar in 2023. No one else is challenging him for the O’s everyday center field job, and while he has slowed a bit from year to year, his 28.4 feet-per-second foot speed in 2022 is still plenty to get the job done. FanGraphs’ Steamer projection expects 37 stolen bases for Mullins in 2023.
The immediate future is less clear for Jorge Mateo, who led the AL with 35 steals last season. He is one of the league’s fastest runners (30.1 ft/s), and an elite glove at shortstop. But his .221/.267/.379 batting line last year was a problem, and it seems likely that he ends up on the bench far more often with top prospect Gunnar Henderson on the Opening Day roster. Mateo will probably still play a role in most games anyway, as a late-inning pinch runner or defensive replacement at least. But that will put quite a damper on his chances to steal.
In 2022, there was a massive gap between the duo of Mateo and Mullins and the rest of the Orioles. Rougned Odor’s six steals were the third-most on the team, and then 10 other players stole between one and four bases. The 2023 roster is shaping up to be more well-rounded by comparison
The aforementioned Henderson will be a huge reason why. An aspect of his game that often goes underappreciated is his speed. The guy can move. His 29.1 feet-per-second sprint speed was in the 91st percentile of all MLB runners last season, and he made use of it with 23 stolen bases between Bowie, Norfolk, and Baltimore in 2022.
Then there is newbie Adam Frazier. He grades out as a below-average runner (26.8 feet-per-second), but has managed to steal at least 10 bases in each of the last two seasons. He’s being treated like the Orioles everyday second baseman to begin the year, an ample opportunity to prove what he can do both at the plate and on the bases.
Ryan McKenna could be the player on the team with the most to gain from the rule changes. He’s a speedster who put up good volumes of stolen bases as a minor leaguer (25 in 2019, 20 in 2017), but got thrown out too often to make it worthwhile. The new rules take away some guess work and add room for error, which should allow him to add to his three career swipes. Plus, he’s in line for more playing time if his success against southpaws (.270/.33/.460 in ‘22) continues.
The X-factor in all of this is what the non-Henderson prospects bring to the table, and when they get to Baltimore. Unless traded, Colton Cowser, Jordan Westburg, Joey Ortiz and Connor Norby are all well-positioned to make their Orioles debuts sometime in 2023. While none of them are viewed as future league leaders in stolen bases, they all have average or slightly better speed on the bases and have seen success while down on the farm. That should translate to the big leagues in some way.
Cowser is poised to be the biggest difference maker here. The outfielder was 18-for-21 in stolen base attempts last season, and when he does get the call he will likely take the playing time of Austin Hays or Kyle Stowers. Hays has a total of 10 stolen bases in parts of five big league seasons while Stowers is yet to swipe an MLB bag, and his best minor league total was 8-for-12 in 2021.
Stolen bases are one of the more exciting moments in a baseball game. They create scoring situations and increase intensity. That’s why MLB wants more of them. But the reason that any of this is important for this Orioles team is because they could be crucial to transforming the offense from passable to potent.
The Orioles lineup was not particularly powerful in 2021. They ranked 20th in the league in runs scored, 14th in slugging percentage, 15th in home runs, and 20th in OPS. And it’s not like the front office did much to transform things during the winter. Yes, a full season of Henderson and Adley Rutschman should make them more formidable, but that alone may not be enough to lift them into a playoff position.
They need to do whatever it takes to put pressure on opposing pitchers. Stolen bases do that. And the Orioles should are well positioned to take full advantage of the talent on their roster and the shift in rules to make their offense more menacing.