Back when MLB announced its new rules regarding bigger bases, limited pickoff attempts and the adoption of pitch clocks, there was a wave of giddiness that spread throughout Birdland. After all, the O’s featured the two best base-stealers in the American League in 2022 with Jorge Mateo and Cedric Mullins. When asked if he could steal 50 bases in 2023, Mateo laughed and said “put it on the books”. The O’s were seemingly ready to get off the to races.
And get off to the races they did in their opening series against Boston. On Opening Day, Mateo and Mullins combined for four steals and were wreaking such havoc on Boston catcher Reese McGuire that he was pinch-hit for in the 7th inning. In game 2 of the opening series, each member of the O’s outfield registered a steal, to go along with another two for Mateo. All in all, O’s ended the weekend with 10 total stolen bases—with Mateo already 8% of the way to his clearing 50 steals on the year.
For Orioles fans like me, whose fondest memories come from the Buck Showalter era, this extremely aggressive approach on the base paths still seems somewhat foreign. After all, in the Birdland Power Company days under Buck, the Orioles were practically allergic to stolen bases. In five out of six seasons between 2012 and 2017, the O’s were dead last in all of baseball when it came to stolen bases. And to be fair, when you’re hitting more home runs than every other team, stolen bases certainly fade in importance.
However, Brandon Hyde’s Orioles seem intent on fully embracing this new era of MLB with their ultra-aggressive approach on the basepaths. After putting up 10 steals without being caught in their first series, the O’s put out a statement of intent to their opponents going forward. Be prepared for these Birds to go “beep beep” like the Road Runner as they take off on all opposing catchers. And while Reese McGuire is far from prime Yadier Molina when it comes to throwing out baserunners, there are plenty of reasons to think Baltimore can continue to find success on the basepaths.
It goes without saying that Mateo and Mullins should improve on the 69 steals they put up in 2022. Mateo in particular should challenge Luis Aparicio’s single-season franchise record of 57 steals. The shortstop surely won’t keep up the .444 on-base percentage he put up in the Boston series. However, if Mateo can keep his OBP at around .315-.325, he could easily challenge 60+ stolen bases. With the new rules, it’s easy to imagine the O’s top two thieves topping the 100 steals mark in 2022.
What makes this Orioles team more dangerous than last year’s squad when it comes to base stealing is the above-average speed they possess at baseball’s normally slow positions. Of the 25 catchers with at least 100 competitive runs in 2022, Adley Rutschman ranked seventh with a sprint speed of 27.5 ft/second. When it comes to fleet-footed catchers, Rutschman likely won’t be chasing down JT Realmuto’s 21 steals from last year. However, between his relatively decent speed, the Orioles’ aggressive approach and the four steals Adley put up last season, it’s easy to imagine the second-year backstop reaching double digits in steals.
Ryan Mountcastle—as a converted shortstop and former major league outfielder—should also outpace opposing first basemen when it comes to steals. With the same top sprint speed as Adley, Mountcastle finished sixth among all first basemen in 2022. And again like Adley, it wouldn’t be a shock if he joins in on the base-stealing fun and jumps from four steals in 2022 to double digits in ‘23.
Then there are the relative newcomers to the roster. Adam Frazier doesn’t possess the same type of high-end speed (relative to their positions) that many of the Orioles players have. At 26.8 ft/sec, Frazier was in the bottom ten of regular second baseman last season—even coming in behind former Oriole Rougned Odor. However, the former All-Star has topped 10 steals in each of the last two seasons and early returns with the Orioles suggest he’ll continue that trend in 2023.
Then there’s the base-thieving conundrum that is Gunnar Henderson. With a max sprint speed of 29 ft/sec, the No.1 prospect in baseball certainly has the wheels to be an above-average base stealer. He showed signs of putting that speed to use with Bowie last year, posting 12 steals and a stolen base attempt once every 15 plate appearances. However, when he moved up to Norfolk, that rate dropped to one attempt every 23 plate appearances—despite maintaining an extremely high OBP. When Gunnar finally made it to Baltimore, he only attempted two stolen bases in 132 plate appearances.
The running theme throughout this article—and the first series—is that the new rules that favor base runners should lead to increased steal attempts across the board. So it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Gunnar end up AT LEAST 10-15 steals—likely joining Frazier, Mountcastle and Rutschman in the low double digits.
However, Henderson seems like the player whose stolen base tally is least likely to match his physical talent. He has the speed and ability to be a 30+ steal player, but it seems far from a sure thing, even with the rule changes. Even without Henderson producing to the best of his abilities on the base paths, this Orioles team has everything it needs to surpass the high of 150 steals put up by the 1976 squad—the most since the franchise moved to Baltimore.
There’s also a fair question as to whether this prolific plundering of bases will contribute to winning in 2023. After all, since the league expanded to 30 teams, the Orioles have finished in the top five in stolen bases twice—in 2000 and 2007. In both of those seasons, the O’s came in fourth in the division and missed the playoffs by an average of 21 games.
However, what we saw in the opening series vs. the Red Sox is that this aggressive style of baserunning can be the catalyst the offense needs to keep up in games where the pitching staff isn’t on their A-game. The pitching will absolutely need to get better for Baltimore to fully realize their potential and reach the postseason. Yet, if/when the O’s continue this torrid base-stealing pace, it could provide the edge they need to erase some subpar pitching performances and overcome the rest of the middle of the pack for a Wild Card spot.
This season, will Jorge Mateo break Luis Aparicio’s franchise stolen base record of 57?
This poll is closed
Yes, he’ll break it
He’ll break it before September
He’ll break it before the All-Star break
No, he won’t break it