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No Balance in Birdland

The Orioles have forsaken speed in favor of the long ball, and they could make history this season for being slow. But they’re not worried. Just ask their manager.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Hank Aaron once described the triple as “the most exciting play in baseball,” and those inclined to agree probably think last year’s Orioles were the most boring team in the history of the sport. Baltimore hit six triples all season, just more than half the previous MLB low of 11. That’s a phenomenal gap between old record and new, the equivalent of a batter suddenly clubbing 134 home runs in a season or a pitcher compiling 937 career wins.

Yet it represents just the tip of Baltimore’s speed iceberg, wherein both the “speed” and “iceberg” components could be described as glacial. Stolen bases function similarly to triples, injecting a standard at-bat with a dose of sudden excitement, and in terms of team swipes, the 2016 Orioles were also historically boring, with their 19 stolen bases representing the second-lowest total for a team over a 162-game schedule.

Baltimore’s whole team tallied as many triples as Jay Bruce and as many stolen bases on the year as Billy Hamilton managed in August. For a non-Hamilton comparison, consider that the 2016 O’s managed fewer stolen bases than Baltimore third baseman Manny Machado totaled by himself in 2015.

The Orioles have a chance to make more history this coming season: If they rank last in MLB in steals, they will become the first club to do so four years in a row. Already, they join the late-’80s Red Sox and World War I–era Red Sox as the only teams to bring up the rear in three straight campaigns.

Manager Buck Showalter isn’t concerned about the pattern. “I’d love to run more, I’d love to steal more bases — we just don’t have that skill set on our club,” he tells me. “It hasn’t been a real asset or something that we were very good at, and you can’t just continue to push the envelope at something that’s just not there.”

Indeed, the Orioles were successful on only 59 percent of their steal attempts last season, second-worst of any team. That rate skews the cost-benefit balance, especially when every Baltimore batter is capable of hitting a home run, rendering the runner’s place on the bases irrelevant. The O’s bashed 253 homers in 2016, 28 more than the second-place Cardinals and the fifth most in MLB history.

“There’s more risk involved,” Showalter says. “I think guys are a little more cautious about attempting a stolen base … because there are so many guys that can hit a two-run homer. Also, by stealing second, it opens up them pitching around the next hitter.”

Machado’s drastic decline from 20 stolen bases in 2015 to zero last year illustrates Showalter’s point. Twice last April, Machado attempted to steal third only to make the third out of the inning, as 2015 MLB home run leader Chris Davis stood impotent in the batter’s box. The team didn’t attempt any more steals of third all season, though Machado botched one more theft, trying to take second with another man on third and two outs on May 10, again with Davis at the plate. Afterward, the third baseman put a personal kibosh on steals the rest of the year.

The resulting stat line gave Machado an individual record alongside the team’s feats. Throughout MLB history, players have stolen 20-plus bases in a season more than 3,000 times. Machado became the first to follow up such a year with one in which he failed to steal a single base despite qualifying for the batting title.

“One thing is he’s put on about 20 pounds since two years ago — good weight, good strength, but he doesn’t run quite as well,” Showalter explains. “He’s playing every day, the wear and tear on his body. … He’s got to pace and pick his spots.”

Machado might never again steal 20 bases, but he might fare better than zero if he picks smarter spots. It’s uncommon for even the fastest players to run when they’re already in scoring position; the only other player to be caught going for third with two outs, two different times, was Jonathan Villar, the MLB leader in successful stolen bases (62) last season.

Showalter says the coaching staff doesn’t limit running opportunities, but rather trusts the players to make the right decisions on the base paths. “Everybody on our club’s on their own,” he says. “They can run whenever they want to. There’s no stop signs; there’s no signals-only. If they feel it and they want to go, they go.”

The Orioles, apparently, did not want to go, becoming the first team in half a century without a single player to record five steals and the second team ever that failed to poach two bases in a game. By FanGraphs’ speed score metric, they were the second-slowest team in MLB history, ahead of only the 1953 St. Louis Browns, who finished with a 54–100 record and moved quickly only when they packed up for Baltimore following the season. Legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver, famed for deriding steals and lauding three-run homers, would be proud.

A cursory glance might indicate that Baltimore has improved in spring training, with 12 steals on 13 attempts so far, but none of those thefts has come from a projected starter, and in general, spring training stats can mislead. Last year, the O’s collected 22 stolen bases in March, three more than they totaled when the games counted.

Showalter isn’t giving anything away about his strategic plans for this season. “If I do foresee an uptick, I’m certainly not going to broadcast it at this stage in the season,” he says with a chuckle. Even absent his confirmation, such an increase doesn’t appear likely. Adam Jones’s stolen base totals have declined every year since 2012. J.J. Hardy runs less than any everyday shortstop in recorded MLB history. Sluggers like Davis, Mark Trumbo, and Pedro Álvarez don’t pose any threat on the bases.

The team’s triple count is more liable to rise. Three-base hits are not completely random, but they’re rare enough that fluke occurrences can shift a team’s numbers. Last year, for instance, the Orioles’ total could have been even lower. One of the triples came on a defensive misplay the announcer immediately called a drop, another on a lazy Mark Trumbo fly ball that Josh Reddick lost in the sun. Statcast data shows that of the 797 balls hit with similar characteristics to Trumbo’s last season (in the 92-to-97 mph exit velocity range and the 38-to-43 degree launch angle band), 760 turned into outs, and only four (or half a percent of such batted balls) became triples. A few more such plays this year, or a few more barreled balls that hit the fence and carom instead of clearing the wall, would boost Baltimore’s three-bag total at least out of historical outlier territory.

The Orioles’ speed signifiers don’t matter by themselves, though. Runs, not stolen bases, lead to wins; just look at last year, when the top-three teams in steals were the Brewers, Reds, and Diamondbacks, who combined to go 210–276. Meanwhile, the bottom three besides the Orioles were the Cardinals, Mets, and Dodgers, who combined to go 264–222.

Baltimore has reached the postseason in three of the last five years, consistently defying the projections thanks to Showalter’s magic bullpen touch. The team is far from perfectly constructed: The starting pitching is shallow, unproven, and injury-prone, and the outfield defense is the worst in baseball — and might feature Álvarez in a corner this year, which seems like the wrong lesson to have learned from last year’s Trumbo-in-right experiment.

But between the bullpen and a top-flight offense, the O’s continue to contend, and in 2017, they should do just fine when it comes to scoring runs. FanGraphs’ preseason projections peg them as the fourth-highest-scoring team in 2017, trailing only Boston, Houston, and Colorado, and that lofty total comes despite a not-unreasonable forecast of 34 steals and 12 triples. The team doesn’t need to run as much as its competitors if it plain outslugs them.

All of which explains why Showalter has greater concerns this spring than his team’s speed. “We score all the runs that we need to score,” he says. “I’m more interested in trying to figure out ways to keep the other team from scoring right now.”